Rwandans who fled the 1994 genocide and sought asylum in other countries will lose their refugee status by the end of June 2012 if the countries hosting them follow a recommendation by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
According to the “cessation clause” of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which UNHCR is recommending countries invoke for Rwandans, fundamental and durable changes in a refugee’s country of origin, such that they no longer have a well-founded fear of persecution, should remove the need for international protection.
“The main thing taken into account is whether the situation that forced people to flee still exists,” explained Fatoumata Lejeune-Kaba, a spokesperson with UNHCR in Geneva. “In this case, for the Rwandans, obviously the genocide and the war is over and many Rwandans have already returned.”
However, a number of Rwandan refugees living in South Africa whom IRIN interviewed insisted that, while there had been changes in Rwanda, it was not safe for them to return home.
“I left in 1994 and I haven’t been back,” said Celine*, who like all of the Rwandans interviewed for this article, asked that her real name not be used. “If I go back, my safety will not be guaranteed and even up to now, my family is still getting threatened… people are still getting arrested and put into prison and spend years without trial.”
“What we fled is still there,” agreed Jean-Pierre*, who left Rwanda after his father, sister and a number of other family members were killed during the genocide. “We follow what is going on in our country; there’s no democracy, no respect for freedom of speech.”
Jean Pierre has been living in South Africa for 14 years and has already applied for permanent residency, “but what about those who are fleeing the country now and arriving here every day?” he asked.
Bernard* arrived in South Africa a month ago. A well-known singer in Rwanda, he says he was targeted by the security forces for singing songs critical of the ruling Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF).
|If I go back, my safety will not be guaranteed and even up to now, my family is still getting threatened|
“Soldiers came to my house and I heard my mother outside talking to them. Then I heard shouting and bullets firing and I climbed out the window and ran,” he said, speaking to IRIN through a translator.
Convinced that his mother had been killed, Bernard crossed the border into Burundi where he stayed for a week before narrowly escaping a second encounter with Rwandan soldiers. After brief stays in Zambia and Mozambique, he finally reached South Africa and did not waste time lodging an asylum claim with the Department of Home Affairs in Pretoria.
But after an interview that lasted less than 10 minutes and in which he struggled to speak through a translator, his claim was rejected the same day.
Although South Africa's foreign affairs department has yet to announce whether it will invoke the cessation clause for Rwandan refugees and did not respond to questions from IRIN, Celine said Home Affairs officials had been denying asylum to Rwandans and refusing to extend refugee permits "since the rumours of cessation started".
Kaajal Ramjathan-Keogh of Lawyers for Human Rights, a local NGO which provides legal assistance to refugees, noted that Rwandans seeking asylum in South Africa are supposed to be considered on a case by case basis, but that recent efforts by Home Affairs to address a large backlog of asylum-seeker claims had resulted in some rushed decisions.
"The people doing the interviews are given a target that they need to make 10 decisions a day which results in people having 10-minute interviews," she told IRIN. "It seems to us not enough time to adequately consider a person’s asylum application."
Bernard intends to appeal the decision to reject his asylum claim which, according to a print-out given to him by Home Affairs, was based on a lack of evidence that his fear of arrest was well-founded and information indicating that, "the Constitution of Rwanda protects and advances basic human rights and in practice the government respects these rights."
In fact, a number of human rights organizations have repeatedly raised the alarm about human rights abuses in Rwanda and called for an independent assessment of the current situation in the country prior to invoking the cessation clause.
"It can’t be compared with what it was in 1994 and there have been significant changes since that time, but there are ongoing concerns such as the very tight restrictions on freedom of expression, and that applies not only to the lack of political space, lack of freedom of the media, but also more broadly to ordinary Rwandans who may have a view that is different from that of the government," said Carina Tertsakian, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch.
Reporters Without Borders, which ranked Rwanda 169th out of 178 countries in its 2010 press freedom index, has released a statement pointing to the cases its registers every year of Rwandan journalists being threatened, harassed and forced to flee the country and urging UNHCR to review its decision to support the cessation clause.
Fahamu, an NGO that promotes social justice and human rights in Africa, has also mounted a campaign to oppose UNHCR's decision and has released a "Memorandum of Fact and Law" detailing the human rights situation in Rwanda that cites numerous recent examples of groups and individuals being targeted for persecution.
"[Rwanda] remains a fragile, volatile, authoritarian regime with little tolerance for dissent, freedom of speech, or independent human rights observation, reporting, or advocacy," conclude the authors.
Pressure on UNHCR
Tertsakian pointed out that the Rwandan government had put considerable pressure on UNHCR to invoke the cessation clause. "I think it’s partly a way of trying to control people; they can speak out much more easily when they’re outside the country," she said.
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Long before UNHCR announced its recommendation on 7 October, the Rwandan government had begun informing its remaining 114,000 refugees, the majority of whom are concentrated in the Great Lakes region, that they would no longer qualify for refugee status after 31 December 2011. Over the past year, high-level delegations have been dispatched to host countries such as Mozambique, Zambia, Uganda and Cameroon urging refugees to repatriate and offering government assistance with reintegration.
"There's been a fair bit of misinformation about the cessation clause," Tertsakian told IRIN. "I think many people don’t realize that they have the option of resubmitting a claim for refugee status."
According to Lejeune-Kaba of UNHCR, Rwandans who can still claim persecution or who have gone through severe trauma because of persecution can apply for an exemption from the cessation clause. However, Tertsakian worried about the capacity of a country such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, where an estimated 70,000 Rwandan refugees are living, to process a potential flood of exemption claims.
"Many countries have a large backlog of asylum-seeker claims... If tens of thousands of Rwandans start re-submitting claims, it's going to be a huge job to go through them," she said.
Lejeune-Kaba said UNHCR will work with governments to ensure refugees are informed about their right either to apply for exemption or, for those who have established strong ties in their host country, to apply for residency.
Like Jean-Pierre, Celine has applied for permanent residency in South Africa and hopes to avoid repatriation to Rwanda. "It’s not a matter of having a better life [here] because I love my country," she said. "I’m here because of the protection issue."
*Not their real names