‘Internal democracy helps in running Mahama Refugee Camp’

This interview with Mr Ngoga Aristarque, the Manager of Mahama Refugee Camp in Kirehe, Eastern Province of Rwanda was conducted in the month of May 2016 in Rwanda. Do read some excerpts.

Do tell the reader about yourself?
My name is Ngoga Aristarque. We are in Mahama Refugee Camp which is Burundian Refugee Camp in Rwanda. It is in the district of Kirehe in Eastern Province of Rwanda. And I am the camp manager.

How large is the Mahama Refugee Cam and what is the population of the refugees in the camp?
The Mahama Refugee Camp is on 150 hectares of land provided by the government of Rwanda. And we began to host Burundian refugees from the 22nd of April 2015. Since then till date (May 20, 2016), we have received 52, 853 refugees and we are hosting them. More than fifty percent of the population is composed of children under eighteen years old. Also, the adults are close to fifty percent.

How are the refugees organised in terms of feeding, logistics and children attending school?
The camp setting has a structure. The camp is managed by MIDIMAR (Ministry of Disaster Management and Refugees) together with the United Nations agency for refugees (UNICEF). We have partners in different areas and sectors. These partners assist refugees in different ways. For example, pertaining to the children, we have two organisations (international NGOs) who focus on children. We have Safe The Children International; a British NGO. Also, we have Plan International which is a Canadian organisation which focuses on child protection and prevention of gender-based violence. So, it means organisations in the sectors of child protection and Gender-based violence work closely with children and organise them. We also have ADRA (Adventist Relief Agency) which is focused on education. In summary, the camp is organised by sectors and the coordination is done by MIDIMAR and other partners focusing on different sectors.

Apart from this, there is the camp structure based on camp leadership by refugees elected by themselves. That means that from the grassroots level to the camp level, we have leaders elected by the refugees. At each level, we have three levels, which include the village level. The population of a village level is about 2,000-2,500 refugees and we have twenty four villages. From a combination of a village (depending on the population size of the village) we have what we call a quarter and we have the camp level. At all levels, we have leaders, Presidents, Vice Presidents, Secretary, an official in charge of security and information, an official in charge of family promotion and prevention of gender-based violence, someone in charge of youth, sports and culture, someone in charge of people with disabilities. It is really organised that those leaders help and work closely with the partners to execute different responsibilities. Because every year, our activities are tabled to the refugees and the refugees’ leaders must be involved in activities in the camp. In a nutshell, that is the structure of the Mahama Camp for Burundian refugees.

With the high population of children in the Mahama Refugees’ Camp, how does the education system function? Do the children attend school or school lessons?
Actually, we have schools in the camp and outside the camp since the camp opened in April 2015. As you would know the Burundians and Rwandan educational systems are different. Rwanda’s system is Anglophone while Burundian’s educational system is Francophone.

From June to December 2015, we had the orientation programme in the Mahama Camp, which was about facilitating the ease of the Burundian children who came from Burundi. So that they can catch up and learn English. And by 2016, they have begun to study through the Rwandan curriculum.

Also, UNHCR raised funds to construct schools outside the camp. We have a large school which hosts 16,000 students outside the camp. Because in Rwanda’s policy, wherever we have refugees outside the camp, there is an integration of refugees in the host community. So in the big school which is outside the camp, the Burundian refugees are studying with Rwandan students. The school was constructed by UNHCR through ADRA which is in charge of logistics and education.

What is the name of the school in question?
The school is called Paysannat L School. And it is outside the camp. From Primary three up to Secondary School level six, they are outside the camp. then, primary one to primary two study in the camp because they are little kids. Also, the distance between the camp and the school is one kilometre. Due to this, we prefer to keep the kids (Primary one to Primary two) in the camp and also the nursery school pupils. Basically, those outside the camp are primary three to Secondary School level six whilst those in the camp are nursery school pupils to primary two pupils.

Do the other fifty percent of the Burundian refugees in this camp work or earn a living?
In Rwanda’s policy, a refugee camp is not a prison they are free to work, move and free to be entrepreneurial. You could see that some of the Burundian refugees had their own businesses and inside the camp we have markets. Also, through our partners, we employ refugees. Most of the work is done by refugees and in the camp we call them volunteers. And the volunteers are in different sectors (water, construction and more). For the manpower needed in the camp, we always employ the refugees. It is a way of empowering them and being self-reliant to themselves.

Since the crisis began in Burundi in April 2015 and with the pouring in of refugees; has the job being hectic and difficult?
When the crisis began, one of the things the Rwandan Government did was and is to open the borders for Burundian refugees. As Rwanda is a signatory to the International Convention on refugees and there are protocols that Rwanda respects. This enables the opening of borders, putting in place different reception centres and the government of Rwanda with UNHCR organised different projects (reception centres bringing in partners etc and the operation commenced.) As we continue, we have had partners.

I would not say the work was easy. There were times we would receive two thousand refugees daily. So, it is not an easy task to receive two thousand refugees per day. logistically, it is not easy but we invested in it. the government in partnership with UNHCR scaled up their efforts to receive the refugees. Currently, I can state that the camp is stable and it is beginning to stabilise, though we are still receiving new refugees but stability is in the Mahama refugee camp.

Do you still receive refugees on a daily basis and about the influx of refugees, any increase or decrease?
Yes, we still receive Burundian refugees on a daily basis. Nowadays, if you look at the average influx for this month (May), the average is twenty five to thirty five refugees.

You receive refugees on daily or monthly basis?
We receive new arrivals on a daily basis. I remember that in December 2015 to February 2016, we were receiving close to sixty Burundian refugees daily. And the refugees are still pouring in.



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