Are Rwandan Hutu Refugees Facing Discrimination in the International Protection Regime?
‘It is widely believed that the International Community failed to stop genocide’! Once again? Some say that there were ‘grands erreurs politiques’ (grave political errors). Will there be differences in 21st century? Others talk of ‘Change’! Can change that takes place in one part of the world spread to others parts of the planet?
A Rwandan refugee poses a question on the role UNHCR has played in the forced repatriation of thousands of refugees from Rwanda and on the discrimination of international protection that is afforded to this particular group of refugees.
Since the 1990s, hundreds of thousands of Rwandans who survived genocide and war crimes have sought refuge in the region. The 1994 genocide in Rwanda resulted in a mass exodus of approximately 3 million Tutsi and Hutu refugees. The majority took shelter in the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). About 600,000 of them fled to Tanzania, and tens of thousands remained scattered around east and central Africa. Tanzania, Uganda, Zaire and Burundi have hosted approximately five to six million Rwandan refugees.
A handful of abandoned orphans, mostly from eastern Zaire camps, were taken in by European countries such as Italy, France, and Belgium. But they were to find only temporary relief. After the Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF) seized power, the new government of Rwanda put pressure on these governments to repatriate the Rwandan orphans.
The first terrible mistake made by the international community and UNHCR was the failure to distinguish genocidaires (genocide perpetrators) from genuine refugees. The impact of that tragic fiasco continues to be felt today.
The first massive forced repatriation of this group of refugees was recorded in 1996-1997. Burundi, Tanzania and Zaire were the first countries to compel these refugees to return home without regard for their fear of persecution and of probable human rights abuses back home. Gabon handcuffed refugees and put them in an airplane to Kigali in 1997. “The refugees were kept overnight inside two military aircrafts that transported them from Franceville, Gabon to the Rwandan capital, Kigali just before midnight,” stated a UNHCR press release.
The forced repatriation of Rwandan refugees continues today even as the Rwandan government is known for violently cracking down on opposition political parties. Despite the May 2009 Kampala Summit, at which Heads of State and the UNHCR High Commissioner affirmed the need to protect refugees and IDPs, a few months later the Ugandan government forcibly put refugees in trucks and drove them to Rwanda on the pretext of food rationing.
A survivor told a KANERE journalist that Rwanda security forces had reached the camp of Nakivala to prepare for this event. “I know Rwandan forces were involved in the operation,” said a mother whose family members were taken to Rwanda on July 18, 2010, in what the Ugandan government characterizes as routine deportation of illegal Rwandan immigrants.
UNHCR serves Rwandan government interest rather than refugees
The Rwandan refugees who were forced to leave UNHCR-run camps harbor intense fear about the independence and integrity of the UN refugee agency. Among the thousands of repatriated refugees are those who qualified for international protection; yet none of them were spared from the forced repatriation operation. “Ogata is right when she says that ‘humanitarian action [cannot] substitute for the necessary exercise of political will to solve the underlying causes of the conflict. But when necessary, UNHCR has been all too ready to do dirty work for funding states,” says Barbara Harrell-Bond in her TLS May 2006 review of Sadako Ogata’s book The Turbulent Decade.
Western countries have lent credence to the Kigali government allegations that the majority of 1994 refugees participated in the genocide, thus depriving them of their rights for refugee protection. The failure to distinguish genocidaires from genuine refugees, has led to refugees, especially Hutus, being treated as criminals. The Rwandan government continues to claim that all refugees should return and that those who refuse have things to hide.
Tutsi refugees have often been labeled as either traitors or thieves who not unlike the Hutus flee justice even in the absence of evidence for their claims. As a result, the international community has turned a blind eye to the mistreatment of these refugees. Actions, like forced repatriation, which deny the rights of refugees are pursued with the acquiescence of the UN.
When refugees are asked to comment on current Kigali governance and the praises the country has received in the past decade, their comments are often marked by uncertainty about these changes. ‘The international community is busy with the perceived development in Rwanda happening at the expenses of true democracy and justice. ‘Democracy that kills innocent citizens and fabricates reasons to justify murder simply draws people back into past centuries. Development does not benefit all,” said a refugee in the Kakuma camp.
Thousands of Rwandan refugees are still in need of international protection. Sadly, the government in Rwanda has already killed or made attempts to kill many of them, either in the camps or in the towns where they are hosted in Congo, Kenya, Uganda and South Africa and a number of Europeans states.
In the Kakuma camp, refugee communities from the Great Lakes region have been profiled for possible resettlement into third countries. Rwandan refugees were denied this opportunity with no explanation. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, the hunt for Rwandans in the forest continues. Thousands of these refugees were reported to have been handed over to the Kigali government. The Rwandan government also seeks information about refugees who have integrated in local communities in DRC or elsewhere in the region as well as about refugees who have resettled to third countries. The official story always states that refugees repatriated voluntarily.
16 years have passed since the genocide in Rwanda. UNHCR is drafting a document which will result in the application of the ‘UNHCR Cessassion Clause’ to all Rwandans refugees by December 2011. This decision amounts to failure to protect and promote refugee rights. Thousands of Rwandan refugees who fear persecution upon return to Rwanda are waiting to see what the international community will do for vulnerable Rwandan refugees.
 See the links on UNHCR drafts for possible applications of the cessassion clause: http://www.africagoodnews.com/pan-africa/regional-integration/1130-rwanda-group-refugee-status-could-be-lifted-by-2011-.html; http://www.irinnews.org/Report.aspx?ReportId=86982