The first group of 66 African refugees and asylum seekers who arrived in Rwanda two weeks ago have settled in at the transit centre at Gashora in Bugesera district, which is about a two-hour drive south of the capital Kigali.
While the UNHCR’s external relations officer in Kigali Elise Villechalene told The EastAfrican that the refugees were free to move outside the camp, the Ministry of Disaster Management and Refugee Affairs insisted that the camp is out of bounds to all including the media.
We visited Gashora last week on Tuesday and the area surrounding the main entrance of the camp is a beehive of construction activity. However, it is heavily guarded and not accessible to outsiders. The perimeter wall is also out of bounds.
We decided to find out if the residents living in Gashora trading centre were aware of their new neighbours.
Some of the residents we spoke to said they have not been formally informed about the refugees and did not know where they were from.
Other residents said they had seen young men from the camp venturing out to buy items at the trading centre.
Diane Uwiragiye, a resident and seller of airtime and mobile money transactions said: “We know they’re in the camp and we’re waiting for them to come out and be our clients.”
Eager to speak to some of the refugees, I decided to wait at the trading centre until after 7pm when I noticed a trio of them walking towards the centre.
I approached the young men, who looked barely 20 years old, and greeted them in English. Although they were friendly, their English was not very good and they asked if I spoke Arabic.
I introduced myself, telling them I was a journalist and wanted to interview them. I found out they were from Eritrea.
“Father, mother, all Eritrean. We were Libya and now in Rwanda,” one of them said.
With great difficulty, they said they were among a big group in a boat headed to Europe. They were among the only “survivors of a boat that capsized at sea.”
“About 150 or 170 in boat to Europe died. Me and (pointing to the other two) were rescued by the UN with 130 other people,” they said.
After walking about 300 metres from the camp, we were intercepted by two men in civilian clothing.
They asked me if I knew the young men and suspecting that they were undercover security officers I told them that I didn’t.
One of the men was on his phone, and I guessed that he was reporting and receiving instructions on the situation.
The other asked me if I was aware that I could be arrested. Then the other interjected saying, “He is ignorant. He doesn’t know.”
They told the three young men to return to the camp, but the young men refused to heed their instructions and looked hopeful for me to intervene.
The two men then pleaded with me to persuade them to return to the camp since it seemed I had a rapport with them.
By now, a small crowd of onlookers was gathering to find out what was going on.
I pointed to the U-turn sign to the camp and the young men looked disappointed, but agreed to return.
As they walked ahead of me towards the camp, a UNHCR vehicle appeared and an official offered them a ride but they refused.
The official then gave one Rwf500 ($0.54) and he dashed into a shop and came back smoking a cigarette. They were then led back to the camp.
When I described my encounter to officials from the Ministry of Disaster Management and Refugee Affairs, they said that “registration and medical check-up of the refugees has been done and we’re processing their documents so that they can move freely.”