Forced out, and then back...
UNHCR refused to give us food so that hunger would force us back home. We left all the stores full of food when we ran away to the forest. When will you stop betraying Rwandans?” says a Rwandan refugee living in Cape Town (South Africa), in a plea that has become synonymous with thousands of Rwandan refugees.
Even as this refugee speaks, he sounds terrified, according to UK-based campaign group FAHAMU, which has documented dozens of testimonies of Rwandan refugees in different countries who are unusually suspicious of the UN refugee agency. Many do not even want their names to be published.
Unlike those who prefer anonymity to speak freely, Joseph Twahirwa who works with Geo Pollution Technologies – also in Cape Town, is not scared to speak his mind. He claims to have fled Rwanda in 2002 after a lengthy imprisonment without trial. UNHCR supports operations that force Rwandan refugees to return, says Twahirwa.
“I am witness to that. I saw such cases with my own eyes,” he claims. His other story side of the story is that he has been threatened by people from Rwanda because he is a defence witness at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. The problem, however, is that with all his troubles, the UNHCR wants him and tens of thousands of Rwanda refugees to return to their country.
Go home, you are safe!
As of December 31, there are an estimated 110,000 Rwandan refugees and asylum seekers – 65,000 of these in this region alone. Some 10,000 are in Southern African nations, while more than 1,000 have been living in Western African – mainly Senegal. The disturbing number however is the 9,320 seeking asylum – is several African countries.
In 2009, the agency launched a programme to strip-of all Rwandan refugees such status. The argument is that Rwanda no longer has the problems they ran away from in the first place. Since then, events have moved so fast as the agency agreed with many of the governments hosting Rwandan nationals, to have them repatriated.
Around mid last year, the UNHCR announced it would evoke the cessation clause of the UN convention on refugees; essentially ending the advocacy role it has been playing for Rwandan refugees. The implementation was set for December 31 until June 2012, in a move that provoked a barrage of criticism for the UN agency. Some quarters even accused the agency of siding with Kigali instead of the people it was established to protect.
A campaign was launched in Europe by opposition groups as the date approached. Groups like FAHAMU and Human Rights Watch collected some 15,000 signatures which were submitted to the agency in protest. Media campaigns were ferocious. Demonstrations in European capitals became the norm.
U-turn amid pressure
On December 09, after a closed-door meeting with 21 African governments in Geneva, UNHCR moved the dates to June 2013. The cessation clause scope also became clearer; it would only target refugees who left Rwanda between 1959 and 1998. The explanation: these people ran away from ethnic and political persecution; 1994 genocide and the insurgency that followed.
In a policy statement released on December 31, UNHCR said these refugees shared the “character of group or large-scale population forced movements as a result of armed conflict” and several other factors. The agency wants them home because the post genocide era has witnessed different changes.
“While various concerns continue to be raised by different actors, such as restricted space for political opposition in the country,” says UNHCR, the many “positive developments are noteworthy”.
Rwanda had wanted the period covered to be up to 2006 – because hundreds others left the country escaping in what the authorities here said are the Gacaca courts. The shift with the new UNHCR position is that it now acknowledges that some people have legitimate concerns.
“Rwandan asylum-seekers should continue to have their claims adjudicated and determined in a fair and just manner,” says the agency in the December 31 policy shift statement.
UNHCR Kampala office
As the tempers cool down with the extension of the cessation clause implementation, one office among UNHCR’s bureaus spread across the globe attracts bitter resentment. Following the death of journalist Charles Ingabire on December 01, the Kampala office (Uganda) came under spotlight.
Ingabire reportedly fled from Rwanda in 2007. In 2010, he apparently - with help from refugee rights groups in Kampala, submitted a request for protection, as his life was purportedly in danger, only to be turned away. He is not alone.
Asylum seekers, mainly journalists who have fled through Kampala narrate disturbing ordeals. “Ask anybody who has ever gone to UNHCR in Kampala, Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam, they will tell you that as soon as you leave the office, somebody will follow you,” says one exiled journalist. Some prefer to keep quiet than have their names published.
Others claim they have been harassed even at UNHCR offices in Europe. For example, journalist McDowell Kalisa claims he was haunted and still remains in a state of fear of staff at the UNHCR office in Sweden.
Hundreds of Rwandan refugees in Uganda say the agency has declined to provie them with documents that would guarantee them the possibility of resettlement in Uganda, or even relocation. Uganda and Tanzania have for their part forced the refugees out – sometimes at gun point. By July 2010, 3,320 Rwandans in Uganda had filed for asylum, and 98 percent of the applications were denied, according to Marissa Elizabeth Cwik, who has published a major study on Rwandans in Uganda, released May 2011. Rwanda welcomes.
The Chronicles sent three different email addresses of senior staff in the Kampala office but there has been no response since December. After about two weeks of waiting, we sent other emails to several officials at UNHCR’s HQ in Geneva, including the agency’s spokesperson, Mellisa Fleming, but there was no response by press time.
Back in Kigali, the scope of the cessation clause was received with disappointment as government had lobbied hard to have it cover at least up to 2006 or 2002. All in all, the announcement that the implementation would begin was well received.
"This stamp of approval from the UNHCR lights the path homeward for the estimated 100,000 remaining Rwandan refugees," said Foreign Affairs Minister and government spokerperson, Louise Mushikiwabo, in a statement January 03.
"We urge them to take their rightful place in Rwanda's journey of reconciliation, national renewal and socioeconomic development."
Disaster Preparedness and Refugee affairs minister Gen. Marcel Gatsinzi, who has made endless tours of refugee camps convincing Rwandan refugees to come home, was all smiles at a news conference the same day.
"We will do all we can to ensure that they can make their choice based on accurate information, free of fear and in the knowledge that they will be welcomed and supported when they return home," Gatsinzi said.
Don’t force, give them time
Under the new repatriation program, host countries will have the leeway to decide who to accept in their territory as refugees – which could bring situations like those of Uganda and Tanzania. In others, UNHCR is telling governments to choose what to do with these refugees.
In some countries in Southern Africa, governments there have not responded to Rwanda’s calls to have its citizens come home, in part because many have lost all connection to Rwanda. They have businesses while their children have grown up there.
Experts say decreased access to refugees limits UNHCR's ability to educate refugees about their rights, ensuring that the decision to return is voluntary. Because of the many asylum requests that were rejected, Marissa Elizabeth Cwik’s study says this indicates that Uganda is not adequately considering individual cases.
Uganda is said to consider mandated repatriation where in some cases, refugees are bundled into trucks and sent back home. “Forcing involuntary returns increases the chances that such refugees will flee again, causing additional instability in regions that have recently begun recovering from conflict,” said Elizabeth Cwik.