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Protests and hunger in East Africa's refugee camps

Philipp Sandner
February 27, 2018

Refugees in East Africa are protesting against cuts in food rations brought about by a funding gap. The food shortage has forced some to attempt to leave the camps and find an additional source of income.

People carry their belongings near Kiziba refugee camp in Rwanda
Image: Reuters/J. Bizimana

More than 2,000 Congolose refugees in the Russian-run camp of Kiziba in western Rwanda have held demonstrations against cuts to food rations over the past week. The UN World Food Programme (WFP) decreased rations by 25 percent after several European donor countries withdrew their support.

Frustrations came to a head last Thursday when Rwandan police shot dead 11 refugees during a protest inside Kiziba, according to a revised figure issued by the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) while another 20 were wounded — including seven police officers.

"We have detained five of the instigators of these illegal protests," police spokesperson, Theos Badege told DW. Seven police officers also suffered injuries during the protests.

The camp is one of six Rwandan refugee camps which hosts refugees who fled the political unrest in Burundi and ethnic violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The camp in Kiziba currently hosts 17,000 people.

Read also: Burundi should cooperate with ICC investigators

Kibiza refugee camp in Rwanda
The refugee camp in Kiziba hosts around 17,000 peopleImage: Reuters/J. Bizimana

UNHCR calls for an investigation

The police defended their harsh crackdown, saying that the protesters were not cooperating. The refugees had allegedly been advised not to leave the camp and remain calm as long as the government was still negotiating with the UNHCR. The protesters had, however, not complied with this order and marched towards the capital, Kigali. Some of the protesters had armed themselves with sticks and stones, according to police.

The government must guarantee the security of the refugees, a UNHCR spokesperson said on Friday, demanding an investigation into the deaths. The organization said that only two percent of its funding appeal for 2018 for Rwanda had been secured.

Read also: Mobile power to bring Rwanda's remote regions into the future

Too hungry to study

Around 500 kilometers (310 miles) south of Kiziba, in neighboring Tanzania, lies the Nyarugusu refugee camp. About 200,000 people from Burundi and DRC live here. They too are feeling the shortage in food aid.

"The refugees go to our fields and steal our cassava and potatoes," says Amandusi Ndondeye, a representative from the local government.

Young women from the camps have turned to prostitution to make ends meet. "We have very little money," says Marco Lujulika, a resident from the camp. "We need to be able to provide for ourselves and we at least need enough food to eat. The children are crying all the time and the ones who go to school can't concentrate on an empty stomach," he says.

Faustin Lumona is the camp's education coordinator. "The children often come to school late, or they skip school altogether. Some fall asleep in class and all this because of the hunger," he told DW. "They also don't manage to study at home. Instead they go to the fields to try and find some food."

Unable to work

Refugees in Nyarugusu camp, Tanzania
Refugees in Nyarugusu camp need a special permit to leave the campImage: DW/P. Kwigize

Without any additional sources of income, the hardships in the camps are barely manageable. In order to actually leave the camp and earn money, the refugees need a special permit. "The people try to earn a bit of money on the farms in the area," explains Angelique Abiola, a spokesperson for the refugees in the camp. "But if you are caught without a permit, then you're in trouble,” she says. 

Over the years, Tanzania has often hosted refugees from the neighboring countries. The plight of the refugees at the Burundian border has, however, pushed Tanzania to its limits. The Tanzanian government is said to have encouraged the ‘voluntary' return of the refugees and some have indeed gone home despite the dangers.

Correspondents Sylivanus Karemera and Prosper Kwigize contributed to this report.

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