Cuts in UNHCR aid turns Burundian refugee into self-sufficient tailor

François Niziuingimana resents the reduction in assistance by the UN refugee agency, but it has made the refugee from Burundi a popular and self-sufficient member of the community in the tiny mountain kingdom of Swaziland.

Francois Niziuingimana, a refugee from Burundi living in Swaziland, has established a successful tailoring business as UNHCR encourages the small number of remaining refugees to become self-sufficient.   © UNHCR/P.Rulashe

SITEKI, Swaziland, October 12 (UNHCR) - François Niziuingimana resents the reduction in assistance by the UN refugee agency, but it has made the refugee from Burundi a popular and self-sufficient member of the community in the tiny mountain kingdom of Swaziland.

As UNHCR is acutely aware, aid can be a double-edged sword - sometimes necessary but also carrying the risk of creating dependence. The refugee agency is entering the final stages of ending its own involvement in Swaziland, turning over the programme entirely to the Swazi government and advancing the process of local integration.

Niziuingimana is a popular figure in Siteki, a rural town in Swaziland. The Burundian refugee is the local fashion designer and the clothing in his small shop attests to his industriousness. A stream of customers ensures he is busy and in a good month he earns more than 2,000 rand (about US$260).

But on this occasion he was presenting himself to officials in Siteki to re-register as a refugee - a process under way for all refugees this month to determine exactly how many of them are now in Swaziland.

"The verification of refugees and asylum seekers goes toward proper planning to enhance the delivery of services," says Reggie Magagula, project coordinator with CARITAS, a local partner implementing UNHCR programmes in Swaziland. "One hopes that with the conclusion of this exercise we will have an accurate number of refugees which will enable us to plan and budget in a more focused and sustainable manner."

But change can be threatening. Despite being a self-reliant individual doing well in business, Niziuingimana is wary of change. He fears for his future as a refugee and feels abandoned by UNHCR. "Since I arrived as a refugee all I have seen are cut backs in assistance to refugees."

He arrived in Swaziland in 1994 as UNHCR began scaling down activities, following a fall in the number of refugees. The end of apartheid in South Africa allowed the return of South African refugees and the end of civil war in Mozambique cleared the way for repatriation of the largest group of refugees in Swaziland. UNHCR has overseen operations from Pretoria since closing the local office in 2001.

Relatively few refugees remain; a few dozen live in Malindza refugee camp, one of two camps in the country. Many who arrived in recent years may have gone on to South Africa, drawn by better economic opportunities. The number of people of concern to UNHCR will be clear at the end of the month.

Efforts to make refugees self-sufficient - and avoid dependence on UNHCR - began a decade ago. In late 1996 UNHCR began the Malindza Self-Reliance Initiative, which encouraged refugees to take charge of their lives through agricultural and agro-based industries in the Malindza area.

Niziuingimana, a resident of Malindza since arriving as a secondary school student in 1994, laments he came as UNHCR began phasing out care and maintenance. He felt deprived of benefits while forced into self-reliance he feared he could not manage.

UNHCR's Swaziland country team searched for alternatives for refugees who did not want to farm. A number from the Great Lakes were hired as French teachers by the Teaching Commission of Swaziland. "Others, such as Niziuingimana, branched into small business initiatives after realising that the emergency and care and maintenance phases of assistance to refugees were definitely over," says Magagula.

Niziuingimana grudgingly agrees the withdrawal of assistance helped spur him to attain his present self-reliance. "I have always had a passion for drawing and design so I found a job as an apprentice with a tailor several years ago to channel my craft to fashion design," he said. He earned enough money to buy three sewing machines and is well on the way to establishing a thriving business.

Magagula sees re-registration - which will compile a detailed profile of the refugee population - as a step forward in the process of self reliance. It's a continuation of the efforts begun in the 1990s, matching the skills and resources of refugees with opportunities to become productive, self-supporting members of Swazi society.

"I commend his initiative and that of other refugees because I don't see Swaziland returning to food distribution in its previous format. Refugees shouldn't despair because of the changes taking place - change is inevitable and it can be a good thing," Magagula said.

"In the 10 years in which I have worked in the service of refugees, I have witnessed this progression from food dependency to a stage where refugees like Niziuingimana can and are employing their fellow Swazis. Change is never easy, but in terms of the pursuit for self reliance I can safely say refugees are by and large truly on the road to economic self-determination in Swaziland."

By Pumla Rulashe in Siteki, Swaziland