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Donors are cutting food aid for refugees in Rwanda. That’s devastating for people unable to work.

Half these refugees have been in this camp for more than 20 years, unable to move forward with their lives.

- May 24, 2021

The U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR, or United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) and World Food Programme recently announced 60 percent cuts to food assistance for refugees in Rwanda. Funding shortages resulting from decades-long refugee hosting, compounded by covid-19 demands, have left the government of Rwanda and humanitarian agencies no choice but to prioritize who will continue to receive assistance.

The last time this happened, in 2018, two successive cuts in food rations led to a protest by 3,000 residents of the Kiziba refugee camp. Security forces dispersed the crowds, killing at least five refugees and injuring 20. More than 20 community leaders of the camp were imprisoned. Prior to that day, government and aid workers considered Kiziba one of the safest and most stable refugee camps in Rwanda.

Food insecurity is a symptom of a bigger problem

This is about more than food security. Around 56 percent of the 137,975 refugees in Rwanda are in a “protracted situation” — they’ve lived in camps for over 20 years. This means children born in the camps who are now reaching adulthood have never been to the Democratic Republic of Congo — where most of these families came from.

In my research, I interviewed elected community leaders of Kiziba camp between 2013 and 2015 to understand the dynamics of “protracted refugee situations.” It’s not just in Rwanda. Millions around the world have been in exile for five to 10 years or more. It’s already been 10 years since Syrians began fleeing their country, for instance, and Afghans have been displaced for more than 40 years.

In my interviews, Kiziba’s community leaders shared their struggles with refugees’ dependency on humanitarian aid. Always first thanking Rwanda for its hospitality, they highlighted that camp residents have few opportunities to try to make something of themselves. Refugees are educated up to high school in the camps, but often find little work afterward. A few get jobs with aid agencies in the camp. Some leave to work or get more training outside the camp, but risk exploitation because they don’t have the proper papers to work. This is starting to change through programs to support refugee businesses and work opportunities.

Being in a long-term refugee situation is like being stuck in time, interviewees explained. They saw no way forward, and no way back — the Congo they left wouldn’t readily accept them back as citizens. And they know they aren’t Rwandese, despite sharing the same language.

The pandemic puts further strains on humanitarian resources

Strained by covid-19 demands, humanitarian agencies and host governments — most of which are food-insecure developing countries — face funding shortfalls. In 2020, global humanitarian aid declined for the first time in more than 10 years, and the pandemic further compounded economic and conflict crises in many countries. Ration cuts alone are expected to affect more than 3 million refugees in 11 countries in eastern Africa.

In Rwanda, international donors have only offered 25 percent of the requested funding for the refugee situation there. Around 2014, during my research, refugees in Kiziba received 11 kg (24.3 pounds) of maize, 900 g (1 liter) of oil, 3 kg (6.6 pounds) of beans, and 0.15 kg (5.3 ounces) of salt per adult per month. That was considered the bare minimum nutrition to sustain adult human life by international standards. To obtain vegetables (or medicine, clothes, toiletries — really, anything else), refugees had to sell part of that assistance because they had almost no opportunities to work for income. These rations didn’t arrive predictably every month.

In 2021, most refugees in Rwanda were receiving monthly cash allowances of $7.72 per person instead of food rations, so they could purchase what they need. The funding cuts mean that the monthly stipends will be completely eliminated, except for the most vulnerable. Refugee children, pregnant and nursing mothers and those being treated for significant illness will continue to get the full amount. Those classified as less vulnerable will see a 50 percent cut — and get about $3.26 per month — while other refugees will receive no food assistance.

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Refugees also face the stress of living in limbo

Food insecurity is a visible consequence of stretched international donations and compounding crises. But people in limbo who cannot legally work and find their own pathways to stability and wellbeing are being pushed to the brink of survival.

During the 2018 protest, Louis Maombi, Kiziba’s camp president at the time, shared with me their motivations to mobilize. He stressed that it wasn’t just about the food — refugees were mobilizing against the pervasive feeling of being in limbo. They saw their path to the future blocked by labor discrimination, and the perception that aid workers were paid 15 times more than camp residents for the same jobs. They also sought greater access to medical care, beyond the camp clinic and ability to access the local hospital for some conditions.

Food might have been the impetus for the protest, but many sought better integration into life somewhere — anywhere — beyond the camp. For some, the opportunity to leave Rwanda — even if that meant returning to conflict zones in the Congo — felt like the only way to dislodge themselves from limbo.

The Rwandan government shoulders a significant burden in hosting refugees. In 2014, the minister who managed the country’s refugees — who had been a refugee — explained to me that Rwanda is densely populated and has its own development issues. The government cannot give land, an important aspect of identity and security in central Africa, to all the displaced people it hosts. Unlike Colombia, which has offered a long-term solution to around 1.7 million Venezuelan migrants, Rwanda is looking for solutions that align with its development needs and constraints.

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Protracted refugee situations continue to be a large burden on host communities, as well as a frustrating and untenable situation for the forcibly displaced. Though decades-long refugee situations are mostly invisible in the news, the compounding effect of declining aid dollars, simultaneous crises and the fact that poor countries bear the brunt of the hard decisions and financial effects for these populations will increasingly become part of the global conversation.

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Erika Frydenlund (@ErikaFrydenlund) is a research assistant professor in the Storymodeler research group at the Virginia Modeling, Analysis and Simulation Center at Old Dominion University – USA.

Note: Ongoing work on refugee host communities building from this research is funded by grant number N000141912624 by the Office of Naval Research through the Minerva Research Initiative; none of the views reported in the study are those of the funding organization.