Kampala, Uganda — Human rights groups today called upon refugee hosting governments to abide strictly by international and regional standards of refugee rights protection during the current repatriation exercise of Rwandese refugees from Uganda and elsewhere in the Great Lakes region.
As the findings from three separate reports on the Rwandese refugee repatriation effort were discussed in Kampala, the authors of the reports —the Refugee Law Project, Makerere University, Amnesty International and Human Right First—stressed the vital importance of voluntary and sustainable repatriation in conditions of safety and dignity for long term security and stability in the region.
Each of the reports highlights different challenges facing Rwandese refugees still in exile. Ten recommendations for a safer repatriation were endorsed by the Refugee Law Project, Amnesty International, and the International Refugee Rights Initiative, a successor organization to Human Rights First.*
The situation of refugees in Africa is being reviewed this week at meetings in Geneva of the Standing Committee of the UN refugee agency, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
In 1994 millions of refugees were forced into exile as a result of the horrors of the Rwandan genocide and its aftermath. This extraordinary exodus of refugees, government militias, and rebels set in motion events which engulfed the Great Lakes region in a decade of suffering. Eleven years later, the search for safety and security of many of those who fled has still not ended. In a region which has enjoyed a reputation for providing generous sanctuary to refugees, there are now indications that compassion fatigue is setting in. Concerns about the security and economic implications of hosting large numbers of refugees are generating harsher measures against the displaced. Diminishing international support and a continuing lack of adequate responsibility sharing mechanisms with hard-pressed states in the region has exacerbated the situation.
Research by the Refugee Law Project (RLP) of Makerere University has found that the repatriation process of Rwandese refugees from Uganda has the appearance of being voluntary. However, the RLP considers that the fact that as the UNHCR declared 2004 as the year of return and emphasized repatriation over other durable solutions, undue pressure is pressed upon refugees to return. Decisions by refugees are thus made in a constraining atmosphere questioning the voluntariness of the repatriation exercise. Although refugees have been given a semblance of involvement in the repatriation process through visits to Rwanda by refugee leaders, the experiences of the hundreds of previously repatriated refugees who have again returned to Uganda are completely ignored in formulating policy on return.
The RLP also documented that Uganda continues to receive new arrivals of Rwandese asylum seekers. In addition, approximately three to four hundred Rwandese refugees who had been repatriated from Uganda to Rwanda have since returned to Uganda citing fears related to arbitrary arrest and disappearances as well as difficulty reclaiming land and property. Many young men reported being forcibly mobilized for "night patrols" and are then feared dead by the community.
Once re-entering Uganda, Rwandese returnees as well as new Rwandese asylum seekers and Rwandese refugees who have passed through Tanzania are being kept in a temporary location known as the Kibati zone where access to registration and asylum determination procedures is denied to its inhabitants. As a result, those living in Kibati are generally denied food rations and medical assistance. To deny access to registration and asylum procedures to persons is contrary to the spirit and the letter of the 1951 Refugee Convention to which Uganda is a State Party. In addition, those living in Kibati are at an especially vulnerable risk of forcible return due to their lack of registration and the resulting uncertain legal status.
RLP believes that "experiences of Rwandese returnees need to be seriously considered regarding future policy formulation on repatriation for this group of refugees as they shed light on the current situation in Rwanda. It is clear that while Rwanda may have made progress in other social and economic spheres, conditions still exist that hinder many refugees from returning in safety and dignity."
Research conducted by Amnesty International has concluded that UNHCR's emphasis on repatriation of Rwandese refugees in the Great Lakes region, without careful consideration of conditions of return, including comprehensive and regular monitoring of the protection and post-return needs of returnees has led to premature and involuntary repatriations that fail to comply with fundamental principles of international refugee law, including the principle of voluntariness in refugee returns and non-refoulement. They can also lead to further human rights abuses and renewed violence in Rwanda. The UNHCR has postponed a decision on the invocation of the cessation clauses until mid-2006 for Rwandese refugees. Nonetheless, the threat of having their refugee status withdrawn still remains and instills fear for many refugees given that the situation in Rwanda is far from meeting the criterion of fundamental changes in the country that is necessary for the invocation of the cessation clauses.
The refugee's decision to repatriate has frequently been influenced by deliberate or unintentional pressure. The cutting of food rations and restrictions of movement—whether with the intention to force people out of the country or not—have a negative impact on a refugee's ability to exercise his free and unconstrained will in making a choice to return, forcing the refugee to make a decision that endangers his or her existence.
Amnesty International emphasized "Repatriating refugees to Rwanda prematurely for the sake of political and financial expediency will only cause unnecessary human suffering and set the stage for further unrest in Rwanda. The focus should be on ensuring viable and sustainable solutions based on the informed and voluntary consent of refugees."
In focusing on the situation of a group of Rwandese who have not been recognised as refugees but are living in limbo in Uganda (the Kibati group), Human Rights First's report acknowledges that concerns about security often complicate a State's response to arriving refugees—and to repatriation. Human Rights First points out, however, that there are mechanisms available to States within refugee law and policy which permit the identification or even exclusion from refugee protection of persons who may have committed serious crimes or who are engaged in military activity and are not genuinely seeking protection and safety. These special measures have not been taken effectively in the region—and need to be. Attention to the underlying political and security issues driving the effort to repatriate is vital.
Human Rights First urges that it is "preferable that a coordinated approach is taken in the Great Lakes region as a whole to policy and practice around the finding of solutions for the Rwandese refugee population."
* Please note: As a successor organization to the International Refugee Program at Human Rights First, the International Refugee Rights Initiative (IRRI) is working to take forward the findings and recommendations contained in Human Rights First's report.