July 3, 2019

25 Years After Liberation: No “Refugees”, But 244,786 Rwandan “Asylum Seekers”


This photo and many others are published on a Facebook page of FDLR militia of depicting “refugees” who it says its protecting in DR Congo forests

Repatriating and resettling ‘Rwandan refugees’ is the sixth point on the original eight-point program of the Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF) and “Elimination of all causes of exile and facilitating repatriation of all Rwandan refugees” is 7th on its current nine-point program.

As we celebrate 25 years after liberation, and 29 years following the launch of the liberation struggle in October 1, 1990, it’s appropriate to ask the extent to which this goal has been achieved especially that, historically, refugees have been central to the country’s crisis.

To historicize, in his 2019 book, “Transforming Rwanda: Challenges on the Road to Reconstruction”, Jean Paul Kimonyo writes that on July 26, 1986, the then ruling National Revolutionary Movement for Development (MRND) in Rwanda adopted a key policy position that turned out to be one of its worst – that eventually led to the overthrow of President Juvenal Habyarimana-led regime.

That policy position was the rejection of the right of return for Rwandan refugees, adopted by the party’s highest organ contained in a secret document titled “MRND Central Committee Position on the question of Rwandan refugees”.

In the document, the authors argued that Rwanda was “overpopulated” and recommended that government shouldn’t accept the “collective return” of Rwandan refugees. Instead, MRND preferred that the refugees settle permanently in their host countries, and emphasized that they should actually obtain citizenships where they are based, writes Dr Kimonyo, who is also a senior adviser to President Paul Kagame.

New details in Kimonyo’s book show that Rwandan refugees, who had fled following the 1959 government-orchestrated massacres were spread mainly in Burundi, Zaire (DR Congo), Uganda and Tanzania.

Rwanda producing refugee since 1959

By the time of the MRND position however, many had managed to settle across the global.

By 1962, more than 40,000 Rwandan refugees had crossed into Burundi, according to data from the UN refugee agency UNHCR. Another 10,000 arrived in January 1964. They all lived in four camps, but slowly integrated into Burundian society, which was reinforced by a Burundi government decree in 1973 allowing the refugees to obtain Burundian citizenship.

At the same time, some 60,000 Rwandans had fled into Zaire (now DR Congo), and dispersed in north and south Kivu. But due to hostilities from local communities which were heavily incited by the provincial and central government in Kinshasa, UNHCR says Rwandan refugees in Congo dropped to 28,000 – as many fled violence to Tanzania and Uganda.

According to UNHCR, about 12,000 had settled in Tanzania by 1964. They settled in the Kagera region, but would in subsequent years mingle into local communities.

For Uganda, it became the biggest home for Rwandan refugees. More than 67,000 crossed there – and because many had cattle, data shows 40% of them settled in the Ankole region, in the south-central western areas of Uganda. It is then that the infamous Nakivale camp was born, which has since become Nakivale “refugee settlement”.

This is Nakivale area in south-central western Uganda. When the first Rwandan refugees arrived fleeing government-instigated ethnic violence in 1959, it was called ‘Nakivale refugee camp’. Over the years, the camp residents mingled into the local community, and it turned into “Nakivale refugee settlement”. After the 1994 genocide, more refugees from Rwanda fled to Nakivale. As seen in the above photo taken 2017, it is more of a town. (Photo by Seb Toussaint)

The refugee problem worsened after the 1994 genocide against Tutsis – largely reinforced by mass crossing of the genocide regime into former Zaire now DRC.

A report by the same UN agency for 1994 shows that more than 1.2m Rwandans poured into Zaire while 510,000 went to Tanzania and 250,000 to Burundi as more than 200,000 crossed to Uganda.

With the genocide government gone and Rwanda completely liberated on July 4, the hard work began on July 19 with the formation of “Government of National Unity” led by the RPF.

Despite challenges, Kigali embarked on a campaign to convince the world that Rwanda was now a new country, and every Rwandan needed to return home.

In early December 1996, the Tanzanian government ordered the closure of all four camps occupied by more than 480,000 Rwandan refugees and urged them to return home. The Tanzanian military was deployed to implement the directive.

But already, tens of thousands who had been living all over the world were returning home; many seeing the country that they had been told about by their parents for the first time.

Meanwhile, a bloody campaign was launched in 1996 in Zaire, which eventually toppled the longtime ruler Mobutu Sese Seko. It led to the mass return of Rwandan refugees while others still roam Congo’s forests up to today.

ALIR, FDLR groups

Data from Rwanda’s Ministry in charge of Emergency Management (MINEMA), which also handles refugee issues shows that 3,464,143 Rwandans returned or were repatriated between 1994-2013.

Origin Total of returnees: 1994-2013
BURUNDI 553,100
TANZANIA 908,194
UGANDA 349,794
DR CONGO 1,618,675
OTHERS 4,847
TOTAL OF CIVILIANS 3,450,782
Ex-armed Groups 5,925
Ex Armed Group family members 7,436
TOTAL OF RETURNEES 3,464,143

Despite this large number of returnees, those who refused to leave DR Congo remain the hottest potato for Rwanda and the international community as they constitute part of different rebels groups that fight the government.

Various Rwandan rebel groups were born including the Army for the Liberation of Rwanda (ALIR) and the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR).

Government of Rwanda says these groups comprise the genocide militia and government forces who took part in the genocide in Rwanda. The groups themselves, through a combination the few media interviews, obscure websites and blogs, and social media, say they are “protecting” Rwanda refugees in Congo from being killed by Rwanda forces using its proxy militia groups.

It is these “refugees” in Congo and others mainly in southern African countries like Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi and Mozambique that pushed Kigali to change tactic and request for the cessation clause to end the problem of refugees.

On January 1, 2013, Rwanda took up its two-year seat on the UN Security Council as a non-permanent member – a position Kigali successfully used. On June 30 the same year, after intense international lobbying, the UN refugee agency declared a cessation clause on Rwandans who left the country from 1959 to 1998.

Article 1C of the Geneva Convention stipulates that when the conditions that had let refugees to leave their country of origin cease to exist, such as a civil war and armed conflict, their refugee status will be withdrawn. This is what is called the “cessation clause”. It is also provided for under the 1951 Refugee Convention.

Kigali had wanted that no Rwandan should have the tag “refugee”. That proved impossible. By this time, a number of dissidents had fled the country, and were living on UNHCR support. They were also mobilizing.

As per her clemency obligations after being pardoned by President Kagame, Ingabire Victoire has to report to the Prosecutor’s office every month. Whenever she does, Ingabire takes a photo which she posts on social media. The above photo was taken this Tuesday July 2

Ingabire Victoire surfaces

By this time, key former Rwandan officials─including a former army chief, former intelligence chief, former secretary general of the RPF and former national chief prosecutor had in 2010 formed the Rwanda National Congress (RNC). A former prime minister and several ministers were already part of political groups which regularly held protests whenever President Kagame visited European capitals.

During exactly the same period, there was another thorn in the back of the government of Kigali: Ingabire Victoire Umuhoza. She had arrived in January 2010, and was by 2013 battling serious charges, a case the whole world came to know about as a result of massive interest from the western press and human rights groups.

With these many loud opposition voices, which put up a spirited challenge against the government in Kigali, the UN could only offer to remove refugee status on Rwandans who had fled up to 1998.

Even then, it was not until December 31, 2017 – more than 5 years later, that the Cessation Clause came into force.

The Clause was initially intended to come into force in December 2011 but was extended, first to June 30, 2013, and eventually to December 31, 2017.

The refugees were given three options: voluntary repatriation, invocation of refugee status and local integration in the host country, and individual application for refugee status with convincing reasons.

Speaking at a news conference on the same day of the activation of the clause, the former Minister for Disaster Management and Refugees affairs, De Bonheur Jeanne d’Arc, said that Rwandans will still be allowed to repatriate after the coming into force of the cessation clause but there will be no reintegration packages for them.

Those who repatriated months earlier were helped to get a one year health insurance cover, food package for three months and an identity cards. They were also supported to start some small income generating businesses where each adult was given US $250 while each child received US $150.

According the UNHCR, as of that last date, there were 244,786 Rwandan refugees and asylum seekers – with more than 80% being in DR Congo. But with effect from the implementation of the Cessation Clause, these people lost that tag of “refugee”.

  Names of countries hosted
Rwanda refugees and asylum seekers
Rwanda refuges and asylum-seekers
after closing of refugees status in end of 2017 (UNHCR Country Report)
1 DR Congo 215, 943
2 Congo(Brazzaville) 4,000
3 Uganda  15,438
4 Kenya  1,735
5 Tanzania  2,600
6 Malawi  398
7 Mozambique  1,210
8 South Africa 1,600
9 Angola  340
10 Zambia 4.032
11 Zimbabwe  400
12 Cameroon 900
TOTAL  12 hosting  countries 244,786

The puzzle is to know why there are many Rwandans who are still afraid of returning to their country – despite enormous progress made.

Interestingly, research released late last year by UNHCR shows that Rwandan refugees in DR Congo face challenges of getting food, education and basic needs. With regard to education, out of 14,129 children of school age, 48% are out of school. This rate is 56% for girls and 44% for boys.

Almost half (48%) of Rwandan refugee children do not go to school, either because of lack of financial resources or poor integration.

Uganda makes U-TURN

Two NGOs, International Refugee Rights Initiative and Refugee Law Project conducted a wide-ranging probe into Rwandan refugees in Uganda. The findings of the NGOs shows that before the love-hate relations between Kigali and Kampala took a turn for the worst in February this year, Uganda had been demanding that Rwandan refugees go back home.

One particular incident that took place in July 2010 led to rounding up and repatriation of 1,800 people. At the time, Tarsis Kabwegyere, the Minister for Disaster Preparedness and Refugees told a news conference that “The target group were those who had exhausted the asylum process including an appeal process and were rejected.”

But Uganda has since made a U-turn. In November last year, Hilary Onek, the minister for Relief, Disaster Preparedness and Refugees said: “In Uganda, out of 14,313 Rwandan refugee population, only approximately 4,000 are affected by the proposed cessation clause that was to come into effect on December 31, 2017….It is, therefore, not correct to report that Uganda will eject or close refugee status for all Rwandans.”

The Minister said Uganda will continue to protect the needs of those unable to return to Rwanda for protection related reasons.

None of the southern African countries Malawi, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Zambia has expressed willingness to force Rwandan refugees out, despite intense courting by Rwandan officials.

Inside the Meheba Refugee Settlement in Zambia, which is home to many other refugees – but mainly Rwandans, a school is in session (Photo by Heather Falenski)

The government of Rwanda has been, unrelenting in its campaigns to ensure the return of Rwandan refugees, even initiating what is called “Come and see, Go and tell” where representatives of refugees are facilitated to visit and tour Rwanda and go back to mobilize fellow refugees to return.

Despite the government’s effort, it hasn’t been able to completely repatriate all the refugees nor convince all those who choose to stay in the host countries to obtain Rwandan passports, as policy.

Why Rwandan refugees aren’t enthusiastic to return home remains a puzzle that should be unlocked.


1 Comment

  1. This refugee problem will continue to be a tough challenge for our country. I don’t honestly think that anybody will ever put an end to the issue. The government has to keep preaching and encouraging refugees to come home and see. However, after living in other countries for these many years, repatriation gets harder and harder.

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