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3 Rwandan Refugees: When Is Safe Return Safe?

3 Rwandan Refugees: When Is Safe Return Safe?

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Rwandan refugees are no exception to this experience—although a

striking feature of this particular repatriation process is the extent to which

the Rwandan government itself has aggressively promoted the return of

all its citizens (in contrast, for instance, to the situation in Burundi where

the government showed an awareness of the implications of wide-scale

return in a context of limited land). There have been a number of reasons

for this, including most notably security fears and a concern for the country’s public image. In the case of the former, and as President Kagame

knows only too well, nationals outside of their country can be a political

liability at best and a security threat at worst. Some are also assumed to

be génocidaires who should be brought to justice. In the context of his

own experience of political and military organisation in exile—the RPF,

the force led by President Kagame to fight his way back into Rwanda,

was formed by exiles in Uganda—President Kagame saw all too clearly

the need to prevent rebellion brewing from outside of the country. The

political role played by refugees—including in forcing changes of government—is a motif of African history and is one of the reasons why the 1969

OAU Refugee Convention includes specific restrictions on political and

other rights of refugees, and recognises that notwithstanding the ‘peaceful

and humanitarian’ nature of asylum61 refugee populations may constitute

a ‘threat’ to the host or other states.62

Furthermore, and given the ongoing failure of asylum states to distinguish génocidaires and others who do not deserve protection as refugees, from those who are entitled to refugee status, the government

of Rwanda’s call for refugees to return became somewhat embroiled in

its demand for governments in the region to hand over suspected génocidaires. These apprehensions have, in turn, created a parallel discourse

implying that those who do not return are resisting because they fear

justice. This rhetoric advances the notion that there is no legitimate reason not to return. Outside of Rwanda, the timeliness of the repatriation

effort has been little questioned by states. Since 2002, tripartite agreements have been signed throughout the region,63 reflecting a policy shift

on the part of UNHCR from facilitating return to actively promoting

it.64 Governments hosting Rwandan refugees, facing resource constraints

and concerned about security risks, have been all too happy to oblige.

Meanwhile the international community, consumed with guilt for its inaction and incompetence during and in the aftermath of the genocide, has

also been complicit in promoting repatriation. Despite UNHCR’s official recognition that a regime change in a country ‘may not always produce a complete change in the attitude of the population, nor, in view of



his or her past experiences, in the mind of the refugee,’65 little has been

done publically to examine the extent to which this is the case in Rwanda

and what the implications might be of such an assessment for the formal

promotion of repatriation as the preferred durable solution for Rwandan

refugees.66 Inevitably, this approach has translated into ever decreasing

protection for Rwandan refugees.

In order to end the process once and for all, therefore, Kigali has been

increasingly pushing for the invocation of cessation—a mechanism within

refugee law that allows for a determination that a refugee is no longer in

need of international protection—arguing that the conditions in Rwanda

that led to mass exodus have changed in a fundamental, durable and effective way. Despite the fact that invocation of the cessation clauses is ultimately a matter for the host country (of course where group cessation is

declared that decision will also involve consultations between UNHCR

and both the host country and country of asylum), it has actively been

discussed and promoted by Rwanda within the tripartite mechanisms.67

With neighbouring countries reluctant to offer Rwandans the opportunity

to apply for citizenship,68 asylum under threat, and with resettlement all

but impossible except in extreme protection emergencies,69 repatriation—

and immediate repatriation at that—has become the only durable solution

which in practice is being offered to Rwandan refugees.

Thus, Rwandan refugees have been caught in the middle of regional

and international policy framework that has been blind to many of the

lived realities on the ground. Indeed, the extent to which Rwandan refugees have come under pressure to return to Rwanda reflects a broader

narrative in which the aftermath of the genocide and the broader conflict

in which it took place are supposed to have been resolved. Part of the

problem here relates to the fact that just as there is a logical—and often

necessary—tendency in situations of mass flight for states to craft solutions to refugee movements in group rather than individual terms,70 the

same logic is applied to the end of exile whereby an end to hostilities has

typically been used as a key indicator that repatriation can take place and

that particular groups should go home. This approach, however, often

fails to recognise that war and violence may profoundly reshape a polity

and, in the process, create new threats to particular individuals who may

continue to be unable to return ‘home’. In fact, it was telling that most

of those Rwandan refugees in Uganda who were interviewed actually saw

themselves not as war refugees but as victims of a ‘war on individuals’71 by

a repressive government. Many had only recently fled into exile—although

often for the second or third time.



The research showed, therefore, that the absence of open conflict is

not an adequate benchmark against which to promote return. Instead, it

is clear that return needs to be considered in terms of political openness

and factors such as good governance (however that might be defined)

and effective systems of justice, mechanisms that are increasingly being

promoted within the ambit of transitional justice. These are more reliable

indicators that it is not only safe to return home, but that return will be a

genuinely durable solution. In this regard, once again successful repatriation is not about stepping over a border: it is a long term process of negotiated access to human rights protection and is strengthened by addressing

threats to post-conflict recovery and reconstruction. And critical to this

negotiation are questions about governmental and societal discrimination,

restrictions on freedom of movement, denial of property rights, access to

justice, and exclusion from governance.

Yet the official policy response from the key state and international actors

in Uganda has failed to fully acknowledge the genuine concerns that were

preventing Rwandan refugees from agreeing to repatriate. Instead, driven

by complex political and other pressures, all three actors with official protection obligations for this group (Rwanda, Uganda and UNHCR) saw

fit to jointly and publically declare that refugee status for Rwandans in

Uganda is no ‘longer justifiable or necessary’.72 Although there was a subsequent softening on this position by Uganda and UNHCR, the extent

to which cessation—and, by extension, repatriation—was pursued regardless of complex realities on the ground led to a shrinking of the spaces in

which Rwandan refugees could live legitimately outside of Rwanda. The

extent to which repatriation was pushed to the exclusion of integration,

therefore, was putting incredible pressure on the lives and livelihoods of

those for whom repatriation was not seen as viable.




Implicit throughout these cases outlined above is the interaction between

refugee policy and fast-changing conflict environments. Refugee policy

is implemented in the midst of all the messiness and transience of conflict and post-conflict environments, and it needs to reflect these realities.

The ongoing plight of Congolese refugees in Rwanda provides a clear

example of this, pointing to the need for refugee policies to resonate

with broader peace-building processes. Ultimately, the key issue facing



this group of refugees—and the main issue preventing them from wanting to return—was the fact that there had been no resolution to the wars

in eastern DRC, and no resolution to the contentious citizenship status of

this particular group. As a result, the environment was not one in which

different groups felt able to flourish and have equal access to resources

and in which multiple forms of allegiance were not only acceptable but

encouraged. Instead, locally constructed (but regionally maintained)

armed groups continued to control access to resources and define the

way in which protection was both configured and violated: the insecurity

generated by armed groups on all sides had created a continual need

for protection and, in turn, a constant excuse for the maintenance and

proliferation of these groups. Ethnicity had become highly politicised in

this context, and its manipulation was clearly exemplified by the status of

Congolese Tutsi groups within the country.

Yet in a context in which local power dynamics were (and continue to

be) the source of so much violence, people had little choice but to look

to the state—a state that held so little promise, but to which there were

few alternatives in a context in which rights are realised primarily through

securing a link with a state. An antidote to violence, therefore, was the

reconstruction of the polity whereby the state could function at a minimal

level and diffuse the power of polarised ethnicities, however idealistic that

notion might be. This is where the discussion on repatriation became so

crucial. By linking the return of this group of refugees with wider conflict

resolution (or transitional justice) endeavours, not only would the chances

be improved that safe and wise decisions would be made regarding their

future, but that such decisions would be more likely to feed into reconstruction efforts—rather than becoming a further source of tension.

Any narrative around the safe return of these refugees, therefore, is not

only about the specific security for this group: it is also about creating a

viable structure for future stability of all of DRC’s citizens, a structure

in which broader issues such as good governance and security sector

reform—including the army, the police and the judiciary—are fundamental to the process of return. It is about refugees being able to return to

their homes and, in so doing, becoming part of the reconstruction of their

country. And it is about creating an environment in which multiple forms

of allegiance and identity can flourish alongside each other. The resistance

of these refugees to return despite considerable pressure on them to do so

shows the extent to which the local was trumping the international policy

regime: in that respect, despite the push of the international community

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3 Rwandan Refugees: When Is Safe Return Safe?

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