Meeting Refugees’ Basic Needs

A key element of UNHCR’s operatons is to ensure that services are based on principles of protection and equality: ensuring that all refugees can access services, and also contribute to their own protection, living conditions and self-reliance. Through its Age, Gender, and Diversity (AGD) approach, UNHCR ensures that the different needs and capacities of refugees are taken into account in the design, delivery, and evaluation of our programmes.

Access to clean water and sanitation and hygiene

UNHCR is responsible for ensuring access to water for refugees, and in Rwanda water is an essential part of UNHCR’s work to meet refugee’s basic needs. Under international humanitarian standards, refugees should receive a minimum of 15 litres of clean water per person per day in an emergency, or 20 litres per day in older refugee camps. These standards reflect the minimum amount required to ensure that refugees enjoy satisfactory conditions of health, sanitation and hygiene. Many people forget that this standard includes not only water for drinking, but also cooking, bathing, and cleaning.

In Rwanda, we collaborate with sister UN agency UNICEF and project partners PAJER, ARC and World Vision International, to provide refugees with water through various means including the sourcing and trucking of water into refugee camps, the drilling of boreholes and the design, construction and maintenance of water systems and infrastructure which also benefit host communities surrounding the camps. As with all UNHCR activities, adaptability and creativity are key when developing water solutions; due to the scarcity of water at the newly created refugee camp of Mahama, for example, the provision of potable water has taken the form of a river water treatment system drawing on water from the Akagera River on the Rwanda-Tanzania border.

The topography of Rwanda has proven to be a challenge in UNHCR’s endeavour to deliver potable water in sufficient quantities to refugee populations in the country. The hilly terrain means that water supply and distribution solutions are complex, requiring frequent interventions and maintenance in addition to what would be necessary for normal wear and tear.

In addition to ensuring supply of clean water, establishing and maintaining satisfactory conditions of sanitation and hygiene in refugee settlements is a cornerstone of public health and safety. UNHCR is responsible to ensure that sanitary facilities and hygiene promotion are provided and maintained in order to prevent communicable disease outbreaks and incidence of diarrhoeal illnesses.

To contribute to safe conditions of sanitation and hygiene, UNHCR and its partners PAJER, ARC and World Vision International invest significantly in sanitation infrastructure projects to construct and maintain latrines, showers and refuse pits for community solid waste management. In addition, sensitisation of the population of concern is prioritised with community mobilisers and hygiene ambassadors trained to communicate the importance of hygiene to refugees, in order to elicit positive behavioural change. Furthermore, sanitation and hygiene concerns inform other UNHCR activities such as shelter strategy and site planning where sanitary corridors are considered during the planning phase.


As part of its international mandate, UNHCR is responsible for ensuring that refugees can access education while they are living in a country of asylum. In Rwanda, UNHCR is committed to ensuring that all refugee children and youth access their fundamental right to basic education, whether they are living in one of six refugee camps, or in urban areas. As the Government of Rwanda has adopted a policy of integration into its national education system to refugees, the UNHCR Rwanda Education Strategy aims to further this integration.

In partnership with ADRA, UNHCR ensured that more than 27,000 refugee children were enrolled in the 2015 academic year following the national curriculum in Kiziba, Gihembe, Nyabiheke, Kigeme and Mugombwa refugee camps. In order to promote integration, where possible UNHCR builds capacity of schools located near refugee camps, to build more classrooms and hire and train teachers, so refugees and host community children attend school side by side. In 2015, 44 classrooms were rehabilitated in Kiziba and 4 new classrooms constructed. In Mahama camp, since end of June more than 9,000 Burundian children are enrolled in the Orientation Programme to prepare them integrate into Rwandan education system next year. Psychosocial support services is also provided to students.

Early Child Development services are provided in the camps in partnership with UNICEF and CARE. UNHCR also supports students in urban areas: 449 children accessed primary education and 222 youth in secondary education in 2015. Access to university is provided in partnership with Kepler university and through DAFI scholarships that include tuition fees, living allowance, internship cost, medical insurance, and dissertation and library fees.

There is also continuous sensitization to promote gender equality through the Parent-Teacher Associations and community leadership. In collaboration with school management, the education project promotes sport activities by organizing competitions between schools, hence improving social integration of refugee children and talent development. These activities have contributed to students’ sensitization on reproductive health, sexual violence and HIV/ AIDS. In addition to education services, a school feeding program is in place in partnership with WFP benefitting both refugee and national students is in place.


Access to Energy and Environmental Protection

Refugees in camps receive dry food rations from the World Food Program that must be cooked to be edible. As such, provision of materials that enable cooking, including firewood, is an essential life-saving priority for refugees during their stay in a camp. UNHCR works with our key Government counterpart MIDIMAR to ensure that refugees have access to firewood so that families can cook their own meals, with the support of ADRA in distribution. In order for refugees to be able to consume the food rations provided by WFP, UNHCR provides 0.8 kg firewood per person per day for all refugees.

UNHCR’s longer-term energy strategy involves the procurement and distribution of fuel-efficient stoves in order to reduce the consumption of firewood by the refugee population and reduce the impact on the environment. UNHCR is also working to procure and distribute solar lanterns for refugee families, to improve access to energy-efficient lighting – which is critical for protection of refugees – for example women and girl refugees going to latrines at night – as well as the ability of children to read and study after sunset. Additionally, UNHCR engages in tree-planting, in order to mitigate the consumption of firewood in refugee camps.

In constructing refugee camps, UNHCR carefully assesses proposed sites with an expert site planner in order to ensure that infrastructure and services are designed to minimally impact the environment. Given the topography of the country, UNHCR also terraces the landscape in some refugee camps before constructing shelters, where necessary, to ensure drainage channels reduce the risk of soil erosion.

Shelter & Infrastructure

UNHCR provides shelter and communal infrastructures as a core life-saving activity to all refugees living in camps in Rwanda. Our key partner in this endeavor in Rwanda is the American Refugee Committee. UNHCR’s shelter and infrastructure strategy in Rwanda consists of providing semi-permanent houses made out of a pole structure covered with mud plastering and iron sheet roofing, for Congolese refugees living in camps. To respond to the sudden mass influx of Burundian refugees since April 2015, UNHCR immediately constructed communal hangars for emergency shelter, and dispatched individual family tents, for the initial sheltering of refugees while semi-permanent structures are being constructed to improve the lives of the refugees. UNHCR also ensures that camps are well-planned with access roads, drainage systems, and communal spaces such as markets and community halls, to support protection and basic needs services.


Health and Nutrition

UNHCR Rwanda works to ensure that all refugees have access to life-saving and essential health care, reproductive health care, HIV prevention and treatment and nutritional well-being. The Government of Rwanda has generously adopted a policy of integration into the national health system for refugees. As such, wherever possible UNHCR builds capacity of national institutions to enable refugees to make use of existing facilities. Where this is not feasible, UNHCR establishes health services for refugees, which can also be accessed by surrounding host communities. We work with our key partners Africa Humanitarian Action and American Refugee Committee to provide health services for refugees. Other partners include IOM, UN agencies UNFPA, UNICEF, WFP and WHO, and non-governmental organizations Save the Children, Concern Worldwide, and Caritas, who provide key complementary health and nutrition interventions for refugees.

Since the sudden mass influx of Burundian refugees in April 2015, emergency health posts were established in reception centers where refugees are temporarily accommodated before being relocated to Mahama camp. At the reception centers, UNHCR screens refugees in order to identify and prevent potential outbreaks of disease, check for malnutrition, and to provide emergency and primary health care services, as well as referrals for new arrivals with serious medical conditions or obstetrics needs. All Burundian refugees in Mahama and in reception centers have benefited from these services, and a result, no outbreaks of disease occurred during the emergecy and UNHCR succeeded in maintaining crude mortality rate and under-5 mortality rate well within humanitarian standards.

In order to treat and combat malnutrition, UNHCR established systematic nutrition screening at the onset of the Burundi emergecy, in close coordination with partners ARC, WFP and UNICEF. Malnutrition screening continues at all reception centers and Mahama camp. As nutritional outcomes of refugees are key to UNHCR’s mandate, well-structured severe and moderate acute malnutrition management programmes are in place at all locations with the support of UNICEF, WFP and ARC.

In the context of the protracted refugee situation, UNHCR operates with the strategic objectives of availing quality Primary Health Care services, decreasing morbidity due to communicable diseases and epidemics, improving childhood survival, access to prevention and control of non-communicable diseases and access to secondary and tertiary care. Additionally, HIV prevention, protection and treatment and access to standard reproductive health care are closely supported while prevention of malnutrition and micronutrient deficiencies, effective treatment of acute malnutrition, regular nutrition surveys and surveillance are actively pursued by UNHCR.