RWANDA Returnees from Tanzania

Interview with Matt Bannermann, Assistant Country Director for CARE Rwanda.
By Johanna Mitscherlich, Media and Communications Officer CARE Germany-Luxemburg

23 September 2013

Between 1959 and 1998, tens of thousands of Rwandan men, women and children fled from ethnic violence and genocide at home to neighbouring countries such as Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Tanzania. According to the UN cessation clause on refugees all refugees should be repatriated back home or reintegrated, once the circumstances in connection with which they have been recognised as a refugee have ceased to exist. However, many Rwandans started new lives in the countries to which they fled, building businesses, marrying into the local community and raising families, and in some cases taking citizenship of the country they now call home. However, in July, following a dispute between the two governments, Tanzania’s president Jakaya Kikwete abruptly ordered the expulsion of around 20,000 Rwandans and people of Rwandan origin from Tanzania. Some were clearly living without regular immigration status, others claim that they did in fact have residency rights or citizenship but this was ignored by police and soldiers carrying out the expulsions, and many were born in Tanzania and had never been to Rwanda. Matt Bannerman, Assistant Country Director for CARE Rwanda, tells us about the plight of these uprooted people.

What is the situation of the returnees?

Most of the around 6,000 people who have been expelled from Tanzania into Rwanda are currently living in two camps along the border, called Rukara and Kiyanzi camps. These families had to leave their homes within days. Their houses, farms, their livestock, their belongings – everything they had worked hard to build up over many years had to be left behind. Many were also separated from family members who do have a regular immigration status or Tanzanian citizenship. Most of the refugees – more than 60 percent – are women and young children. Many are severely traumatised, because their husbands, sons or daughters are still in Tanzania. Imagine having to leave your family without knowing when, how or even if you will see them again! Their situation is heartbreaking.

How does Rwanda support the returnees?

The Ministry of Disaster Management and Refugee Affairs in Rwanda has established the two camps to host these people, at least temporarily. Some of the returnees are being relocated to the villages they originally come from, or where they still have family. But many of these people come back to the camp a few days later because their families do not live in the villages anymore, have passed away or can simply not afford to host them: Rwanda is the most densely populated country in Africa and every square metre of land is already being tilled. Other refugees have no idea of their districts of origin, as they have never actually lived in Rwanda.

The government is exploring long-term solutions to shelter and relocate the returnees, but more people are expected in the coming days and weeks. At the moment, around 300 returnees are crossing the border into Rwanda every day.

You have visited the camps in Rwanda. What do they look like?

The Government of Rwanda is doing the best they can with limited resources: because of the uncertain status of these people international support is so far pretty minimal. The living circumstances are extremely difficult. I was struck by what I saw. The Rukara camp is on the site of a former mining camp, so there are some brick buildings that can be used as offices and stores. There is also a kitchen that camp residents can use. But most of the residents have to live in hangars made from plastic sheet, which are still under construction. It gets very hot under the sun. Rukara only has one single water point with three taps. Some of the residents who live on the far side of the camp have to walk long distances to get water. Each latrine is shared by around 60 people, and sanitation and hygiene are therefore really big challenges. The other camp, Kiyanzi, is sited on a rocky plateau swept by strong winds, which in the current dry season of the year fill the air with dust, which can cause serious respiratory problems, particularly for the children.  The rocky terrain also makes it difficult to bury waste, and large piles of garbage have accumulated at the back of the housings. This can generate health problems for the residents. There are primary health services in the camp, but serious cases have to be referred to outside hospitals. We are particularly concerned about reports showing an increase of cases of diarrhoea, vomiting and also malaria. There is also a great need for more preventative health services, including immunizations, and also for family planning and reproductive health services.

How do children cope in the camps?

There is no provision for the hundreds of children of all ages in the camps. Older kids cannot go to school because the Rwandan school year is over. There is no possibility for them to be integrated into host community schools until January 2014. Children under the age of five roam free in the camp without supervision, making their own games from what they find or just looking lost. Their mothers are suffering from the separation of their husbands and other children; many of them are extremely shaken and vulnerable and urgently need psychosocial support. The children, many of whom have also experienced the trauma of suddenly leaving homes and family members, need care and protection, and also appropriate structure and stimulus, so they can begin to recover their natural curiosity and sense of fun and play.

What is CARE doing to support the returnees?

Expert teams from CARE Rwanda have visited the camps and made a careful assessment of conditions and needs. Working with dedicated local community organisations, CARE will be providing essential early childhood services in the camps, training mothers to form groups in which young children can play safely and learn together, as well as receiving vital nutritional supplements and being screened for common childhood illnesses and referred to the medical services if required. CARE will also, again with our partners, be mobilizing and educating camp residents on sexual health and family planning, helping women and men to access advice and appropriate family planning materials and training community members to prevent all forms of violence against women, including sexual violence and rape.

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