Thousands of Rwandan refugees living in Uganda remain unwilling to return home, citing a fear of persecution, despite the UN Refugee Agency’s (UNHCR) invocation of a clause ending their refugee status.
“[Since May 2009], no Rwandan refugee of any profile, either urban or rural, has expressed [a] willingness to return back home,” Manzi Mutuyimana, one of the refugees, told IRIN. “Conditions which could make [a] safe return with dignity [do not exist] in Rwanda.”
The refugees and asylum-seekers fled to Uganda between 1959 and 1998.
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 cessation clause renders refugee status, protection stemming from a host government, obsolete.
According to UNHCR, the Rwandan government had made the repatriation of refugees in neighbouring countries a priority and had asked UNHCR to invoke the cessation clauses for this group. “UNHCR is therefore working with all concerned parties with a view to the application of the cessation clauses by the end of June 2012.”
UNHCR approved the clause in December 2011 but extended its application to 30 June 2013 - a move welcomed by Rwanda in January.
“This stamp of approval from UNHCR lights the path homeward for the estimated 100,000 remaining Rwandan refugees,” said Louise Mushikiwabo, Foreign Affairs Minister and government spokeswoman. “We urge them to take their rightful place in Rwanda’s journey of reconciliation, national renewal and socio-economic development.”
But the refugees described the invocation of the clause as premature and ungrounded in a December 2011 petition to the UNHCR chief António Guterres, saying the clause was being “subtly utilized as a shortcut which will not therefore lead to durable solution[s] to the intractable problem of Rwandan refugees”.
In early 2010, a farming ban was imposed on the refugees in southwestern Uganda to encourage them to voluntarily repatriate but the number who left was low.
“If things change in Rwanda, there will [be] no need of declarations of... cessation clause... We shall be willing to go to our country without their help,” said Jack*, a refugee.
Human rights officials have said the application of the clause will strip refugees of their legal rights, exposing them to forcible repatriation and the risk of further persecution.
"[Rwanda] remains a fragile, volatile, authoritarian regime with little tolerance for dissent, freedom of speech, or independent human rights observation, reporting, or advocacy," wrote Fahamu, a social justice NGO detailing the human rights situation in Rwanda.
In a past interview, Fatoumata Lejeune-Kaba, a spokesperson for UNHCR in Geneva, told IRIN that 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.
UNHCR, she said, would 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.
On 7 March, the Ugandan government announced that it was going to repatriate more than 5,000 refugees who fled to the country between 1959 and 1998.
Uganda hosts some 15,853 Rwandan refugees, according to UNHCR statistics, the majority in the western refugee camps of Kyaka, Kyangwali, Nakivale and Oruchinga.
The Rwandan and Ugandan governments are sensitizing the refugees ahead of their repatriation, according to Stephen Malinga, Uganda’s Minister for Disaster Preparedness and Refugees.
“We are going to send refugee representatives to see what is going on in their country and they report back to their colleagues on the progress and what they have seen,” said Malinga.
Pressure is also mounting on thousands of Burundian refugees in Tanzania to return home, with Mtabila camp, home to almost 38,000 Burundians, set to close at the end of 2012.
*Not his real name