A group of people fleeing conflict in Goma in DR Congo with their belongings | ©Photo: Getty Images/AFP/P.Moore

While many people choose to move from one country to another, continent-to-continent of their choice, – for work, education or leisure purposes, some of us find ourselves obliged to flee what we once called home abruptly. This means leaving behind many years of investment in education, careers, businesses, relationships, etc. without knowing if we will ever say “Home sweet home” again. For our safety, we put aside everything and willing to start from scratch; this is the story that refugees find themselves in with little say in it, and I am part of such stories because I am one, – a refugee, and this is my current status.

Today, the United Nations Human Rights Council(UNHCR) is the leading agency within the support of displaced people. In its support to refugees, alongside depending on external funds and donations, this agency has also been facing underfunding challenges whereby it can barely meet more than half of its needs; and this in return affects those who highly rely on it,-Refugees(UNHCR, 2018).

With other agencies that support refugees depending on these external funds that turn out to be insufficient and the concept whereby refugees hosted in Africa depend on these agencies’ assistance for their basic needs, this becomes a considerable burden for both these agencies and their host countries.

UNHCR is one of the few UN agencies which depends almost entirely on voluntary contributions to fund their operations. Only two per cent of UNHCR’s annual budget is covered by a subsidy from the UN regular budget“(UNHCR, 2001)

As much as we all need assistance at a certain point in our lives, entirely depending on it won’t enable us to live a sustainable life. Therefore assisting refugees in settling in their host countries is not a bad thing at all, but what matters the most is the sustainability of the assistance. This blog will be looking into the unsustainability of the assistance given to refugees in African countries to support their smooth integration in the host countries. We will also use Rwanda as a case study in regards to what appeals to be a sustainable way to help refugees’ continuous settlement. Disclaimer, this blog isn’t trying to undermine the tremendous support that organizations such as UNHCR or what other African host countries are doing to support refugees. But it is a review on the unsustainability of the approach used to support refugees in Africa and also an opportunity to show an approach used to help refugees that reveals itself to be sustainable to have an impact on their lives and the host country’.

Imagine yourself one morning having to leave your home to another country, and this is something you have never planned for, but here you are in a new country, and the only thing you are aware of is that it is safer than “home”, but again you have no clue how you will survive. This what most refugees experience once settled in their host countries and many arrive with nothing besides the cloth they are wearing. This when the United Nations(UN) with its affiliated program come in to support refugees for their transition in the host country.

Two-thirds of the refugee population in Africa depends on international food aid(UNHCR, 2009) and the Sub-Saharan part of Africa hosts 26% of the world’s refugee population due to different hostilities within the countries in the region that has forcibly displaced millions of African(UNHCR, 2020). Therefore it is the UNHCR with its partner organizations such as WFP((World Food Program) that has a huge responsibility on its shoulders in Africa to cater for their basic needs such as food and shelter to these refugees (United Nations, 2015).

Mahama Refugee Camp: Host of a population of around 60,000 Burundian Refugees
©Photo: UNHCR.org

When refugees come to their host countries, they come with families that at some points will grow either in terms of numbers or age. Families will have more children, which implies they will need more space within the households. But again will the same shelter that was given to them at the beginning of their stay be enough? Even if families don’t grow in numbers, their children will grow in age, which means their needs will evolve. They will need to education, as well as need to advance from one level to another; and the girl child will have more needs such as sanitary pads. All these are basic needs that add-up to the household’s expenses for families that entirely depend on aid from refugees agencies. More shelters also mean more land. The question is, will UNHCR keep providing more space or more shelter to refugees who expands their families? Will these organizations keep increasing their support whenever a household’s needs evolve? I don’t think if even the government of the host countries can do so for their citizens. This entails the burden on the shoulders of organizations that support displaced people in Africa, especially when they depend on external funds, but also while these host countries are already experiencing extreme poverty(World Bank, 2018). The question here is how long or at what extent can these organization and African host countries support these refugees? How sustainable is this support to these refugees?


With Sub-Saharan African hosting the highest rate of forcibly displaced people that depend on such entities, this puts African refugees at high risk. Therefore It is evident that this kind of approach that creates a dependency for refugees is not sustainable for both the refugee agencies as well as their host countries. Of course, as I keep recalling this: we all need help at some point in our lives, and that is what the UNHCR and its partner organizations, as well as host countries, are bring to refugees, but the question remains on how can their support have a sustainable impact to the lives of these refugees? With that in mind, I would like us to see through a model from one African country, -Rwanda, how they are collaborating with other stakeholders to support refugees’ integration in a way that appeals to be sustainable.

Minister of Disaster Management and Refugees, DE BONHEUR Jeanne d’Arc and UNHCR Representative to Rwanda, Ahmed BABA FALL during the launch of the delivery process of national refugee identification cards to the verified refugees residing in Rwanda. ©UNHCR/Eugene
©Photo: UNHCR.org

When we fleed to Kigali with a couple of other young people, being urban refugees, we didn’t have access to assistance on basics such as food or shelter like refugees in the camp because the UNHCR didn’t even have in enough for those in the camps. But then, UNHCR worked hand-in-hand with Government of Rwanda to make sure that first, there is access to documentation for refugees. Therefore refugees were registered both in the UNHCR and the country’s database, and this enabled refugees to have access, not only on identification but also went on further provide them biometric IDs (UNHCR, 2018). But the question you might be asking yourself here is how an ID can be of help to a refugee? Does it provide food or shelter?
Unlike other migrants, due to the unprecedented circumstances of their migration, refugees are less likely to possess proof of identity from their country of origin, because either their documents were forgotten, destroyed or forgotten during the fleeing journey(Gsma, 2017). What makes it difficult or impossible for refugees to access basic services such as mobile connectivity, financial services, education, or employment(Gsma, 2017). This can clarification to the previous questions of the value an ID can add to a refugee’s life.

I can recall not being able to buy a sim card during my first days in Kigali, because my country ID wasn’t eligible, or my friend having to travel 3 hours to get the money from a local that his sister sent him because he couldn’t use his ID as well. Alongside providing refugee identification, Rwanda allows refugees to live and take part in other activities such as education, employment and business outside the refugee camps, something that few countries don’t allow on their territory(UNHCR, 2016). With access to identification and free movement in Rwanda, this opened tremendous opportunities to refugees in Rwanda. This gave us the possibility to apply for different things such as internships, employment and learning opportunities that before we were limited to due to lack of identification, we weren’t able to apply for them. With identification and free movement, today, refugees are venturing in entrepreneurship and being able to access business opportunities such as loan and capacity building through organizations such as the African Entrepreneur Collective.

“UNHCRs partner in Rwanda, Inkomoko, trains refugee entrepreneurs in business skills. The results are striking: The refugees become more self-reliant, improve their living conditions and, in addition,they create jobs and economic growth”(Arnsdorf Haslund, 2019).

Gilbert Ngongo (pictured) is a Congolese Refugee in Rwanda and CEO of Seafood Ltd, a Rwandan company that delivers seafood to high-end hotels in Kigali and has created lots of jobs for Rwandans ©Photo: UNHCR.org

Like other refugees in Rwanda, I paid for both my refugee ID and travel document. Which have enabled me to be self-reliant by enabling me access employment and learning opportunities and, in return, I am contributing to the growth of my host county with my skills set. Other refugees are venturing in business and seeing growth because they were given a chance to access loans that they paid back well. In other words, Rwanda’s approach is enabling refugees to be self-reliant as well as helping us to add value to its economy. Which in return is a relief to agencies that support refugees and allow them to focus their limited resources on emergency needs than being expected to cater for everything, something that is out of their capacity. Other African countries should emulate Rwanda’s approach of enabling their refugees’ self-reliance since our continent doesn’t have strong to any social programs as others do.

Refugees are people just like you and me, who can contribute to economic development of their host country“.



Arnsdorf Haslund, E. (2019). Refugee entrepreneurs create jobs in Rwanda.   https://www.unhcr.org/.

Gsma (2017) Gsma.com. Available at: https://www.gsma.com/mobilefordevelopment/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/Refugees-and-Identity.pdf .

Shendruk, A. (2018) How does the UN get and spend its money?, Quartz. Available at: https://qz.com/1396994/where-does-the-un-get-its-money-a-simple-explanation-of-a-complex-system/ .

UNHCR (2016) Unhcr.org. Available at: https://www.unhcr.org/rw/wp-content/uploads/sites/4/2017/02/Economic-Inclusion-of-Refugees-in-Rwanda-Final-Version.pdf .

UNHCR (2016) Unhcr.org. Available at: https://www.unhcr.org/rw/wp-content/uploads/sites/4/2017/02/Economic-Inclusion-of-Refugees-in-Rwanda-Final-Version.pdf .

UNHCR (2018) Refugees bear cost of massive underfunding, UNHCR. Available at: https://www.unhcr.org/news/briefing/2018/10/5bbc57d94/refugees-bear-cost-massive-underfunding.html.

UNHCR (2018) The Government of Rwanda and the UN Refugee Agency launch the issuance of national refugee identification cards in Kigali – UNHCR Rwanda, UNHCR. Available at: https://www.unhcr.org/rw/13587-the-government-of-rwanda-and-the-un-refugee-agency-launch-the-issuance-of-national-refugee-identification-cards-in-kigali.html .

UNHCR (2020) Africa, UNHCR. Available at: https://www.unhcr.org/africa.html .

United Nations (2015) UN around the World | United Nations Seventieth Anniversary, Un.org. Available at: https://www.un.org/un70/en/content/UNaroundWorld/index.html .

World Bank (2017) “Papers please?”: The importance of refugees and other forcibly-displaced persons being able to prove identity, World Bank Blogs. Available at: https://blogs.worldbank.org/dev4peace/papers-please-importance-refugees-and-other-forcibly-displaced-persons-being-able-prove-identity .

World Bank (2018) The number of extremely poor people continues to rise in Sub-Saharan Africa, World Bank Blogs. Available at: https://blogs.worldbank.org/opendata/number-extremely-poor-people-continues-rise-sub-saharan-africa .