As families flee Burundi, Rwandan Red Cross welcomes them with food and first aid

Published: 27 May 2015 16:43 CET

Jenelle Eli, American Red Cross

Not far from the border with Burundi, a team of Rwandan Red Cross volunteers is peeling potatoes and searching for firewood. They are waiting to welcome another group of refugees from Burundi as they cross into Rwanda at the Mamba entry point, the first stop for families in search of safety.

Violence and unrest have been on the rise in Burundi in recent weeks following the president’s announcement to run for a third term. More than 100,000 people have sought safety in neighbouring Congo, Rwanda and Tanzania. While Tanzania has seen the highest influx of refugees, more than 26,000 people have also crossed into Rwanda in anticipation of increased violence as the elections near in their home country.

“Families are having to use their meagre funds to pay their way to cross the river that divides the two countries, where they cross in small wooden boats to Rwanda,” says Robert Muyenzi coordinator, Orphan and Vulnerable Children programme, Rwandan Red Cross.

The Red Cross transports the refugees from the border to the Mamba entry point, where the families wait, sometimes for hours or even up to a week, to register for refugee status. While some Burundians have family and friends in Rwanda, those who end up at the one of the three established transit camps are usually people who fled with very few resources or local contacts.

At Mamba, Red Cross volunteers offer what comfort they can to families escaping a dire situation. Volunteers provide biscuits, potable water, accompany ailing refugees to the local hospital, and help people cope with the trauma of their journey by providing psychosocial support.  

The mental and physical well being of the refugees is of great concern to the Red Cross. Many of the new arrivals are suffering from malaria due to travelling and sleeping outside while on their way to Rwanda. Cases of communicable airborne diseases such as tuberculosis have been reported. In addition, an estimated 5 per cent of children under five are suffering from malnutrition.

“We are not seeing a lot of families arriving as one unit,” says Muyenzi. “It is rare to see children accompanied by both parents as they cross at Mamba. Mostly we are seeing women and children.” In an effort to reunite separated families, the Rwandan Red Cross, with the support of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has specially trained volunteers on hand at each transit camp, as well as the permanent camp, to assist families in search of loved ones.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) has released 244,580 Swiss francs from its Disaster Relief Emergency Fund to assist the Rwandan Red Cross in supporting 7,500 Burundian refugees. Working in the three transit camps, one permanent camp, and 22 entry points, activities include the distribution of emergency non-food items such as blankets, kitchen sets, shelter materials, and clothing. Families will also receive items to support proper hygiene including buckets, jerry cans and soap, and volunteers will conduct community hygiene awareness sessions. Four tents will also be established in the camps to facilitate volunteer support related to the provision of first aid, psychosocial support and tracing services.