Rwanda’s refugees should not be forced to return

A “cessation clause” invoked by the UN could remove protections for many of the world’s 100,000 Rwandan refugees.

Paul Kagame came to power in 1994 when the Rwandan Patriotic Front captured the capital, Kigali [Getty Images]
Paul Kagame came to power in 1994 when the Rwandan Patriotic Front captured the capital, Kigali [Getty Images]

On June 30, roughly 100,000 Rwandan refugees around the world lost their refugee status and could become stateless if they do not return to Rwanda.

Arguing that Rwandan refugees no longer have a reasonable fear of persecution if they return, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has invoked a “cessation clause” applying to Rwandans who fled their country before December 31, 1998.

The clause essentially frees host countries from their economic, political and ethical duty to provide sanctuary and services to refugees. As a result, Rwandan refugees fear losing their food ration cards, having their children expelled from school, being fired from their jobs, and being pushed into the abyss of statelessness.

Rwandan refugees aren’t the only ones to have been affected by cessation clauses, which have been applied to 26 other nationalities in the past.

With the clause in effect, refugees face three options: voluntarily repatriate to Rwanda, appeal or challenge the cessation clause to stay in their host country, or apply for asylum again in a third country.

 Letter from my Child – Rwanda: Children of Bad Memories

The UNHCR maintains that it only implements such clauses after ensuring that human rights and general conditions in the refugees’ countries of origin have improved and calls these “ceased circumstances”. The agency sees the cessation clause as part of a long-term strategy to push states to commit to lasting solutions.

States are free to choose whether to implement the cessation clause, but are encouraged to put in place certain procedures to transition refugees to alternative statuses such as local integration programmes. Thankfully, countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zambia and South Africa have defended the status of Rwandan refugees living there.

Yet although life may have become better for some refugees who have returned home, Rwanda is still one of the least peaceful nations in the world: according to the Institute for Economics and Peace’s 2013 Global Peace Index, the country ranks 135 out of 162 states.

Accordingly, many Rwandan refugees view this cessation clause as a scam, a global fraud of unprecedented scale. It adds insults to their injuries and should be revoked.

Rwandans and Paul Kagame

In April 1994, after a plane carrying the Rwandan and Burundian presidents was shot down, killing both men, members of Rwanda’s Hutu majority launched a genocidal campaign that resulted in the deaths of more than half a million people of both Tutsi and Hutu ethnicities.

By the time the Rwandan Patriotic Front, an ethnic Tutsi army led by Paul Kagame, captured the Rwandan capital, half the country’s population had fled, fearing for their lives. More than 800,000 Hutu crossed into Congo within four days, one of the largest and fastest refugee exoduses in modern times.

But Rwanda’s new masters did not want to rule over ghost towns, and needed a sizeable portion of the refugees to return. As a result, the government tried to reassure Hutu refugees that the worst was over, creating the narrative: “Rwandans are one, there are no problems in Rwanda – and please come back.” 

Rwandans are one indeed. Yet under the rule of Kagame – who has served as Rwanda’s president since the RPF’s triumph in 1994 – ethnic Hutus have been cruelly mistreated by the government, subjected to deportation, intimidation, and detention. The government’s passing of a law in 2004 banning ethnic distinctions – discussing the topic in a manner deemed provocative can even result in jail time – has had the effect of granting only a handful the right to grieve from a collective pain afflicting Rwanda. The cessation clause is only the latest chapter in this agony.

Kagame – or the “Darling Dictator”, as a New York Times op-ed referred to him – has built his credentials on the heroic tale of having stopped the Tutsi genocide and sending the Hutu “genocidaires” into exile. The president’s story has been that those who do not want to live in Rwanda have a dark, ugly past to hide and are running away from prosecution. While it cannot be ruled out that some genocide perpetrators may have quietly resettled abroad, it does not justify branding all refugees and their unborn children as criminals on the run. 

The Rwandan government has come to realise that casting all exiles as ‘genocidaires’ was clumsy and deeply harmful to its attempt to brand itself as a business-friendly ‘Singapore of Africa’.

The fact is that Rwandans living inside and outside the country are overwhelmingly Hutu, and are part and parcel of the country’s fabric. Rwanda’s exiles cannot be discarded, if only because they foster the sole space where a healthy conversation about Rwanda is possible. Not everyone wants to go back to Rwanda, and certainly not all at once.

The Rwandan government has come to realise that casting all exiles as “genocidaires” was clumsy and deeply harmful to its attempt to brand itself as a business-friendly “Singapore of Africa”. Rwanda needs the exiled Hutu elites, and not the other way around. Between 2005 and 2011, Rwandans living abroad have sent more than $500m in remittances to support their family and friends back home, including $166m in 2011 alone – a major reason why Rwanda’s economy has risen from the ashes since Kagame became president.

Many argue that Rwanda’s policy of marginalising its Hutu exiles stems from the fear that these remittances may create an underground economy, a potentially destabilising financial force and long-term political danger that cannot be controlled by the state: Tutsi traders, under the previous Hutu administration, had bought influence from the allowances received from their exiled relatives.

Accordingly, Kagame has begun to – reluctantly – court rich Hutu to extend his web of influence as he wants to avoid a similar episode at all costs. The government has launched a series of suspicious programmes such as Rwanda Day, Agaciro Fund and Come and See, targeting the Rwandan diaspora, “to help dispel rumours among the refugees, mainly spread by genocide perpetrators that the country is not peaceful and that refugees are arrested or killed upon repatriation”.

Enrolling in the Come and See expedition is free. Former participants have even reported receiving stipends from the government. In exchange, the participants who return commit to preach the gospel of Rwanda’s rapid growth.

To his credit, Kagame has boosted Rwanda’s international profile, securing highly sought-after positions for a handful of former Rwandan refugees. The head of the African Development Bank and the secretary general of the East African Community are both Rwandans, and in April 2013 a Rwandan served as president of the UN Security Council. Another Rwandan was recently appointed to lead the United Nations Peacekeeping Mission in Mali, after successfully leading the African Union-UN mission in Darfur. The country is also said to be eyeing the top job at UN Women.

But although Rwanda has made some impressive strides, such as lifting one million people out of poverty in the past five years, the country remains an autocratic state, and the government has been suspected by foreign governments of supporting attacks and funding hit squads against exiles living abroad.

Understandably enough, many Rwandans dread returning to their home country. But now that the cessation clause has been invoked, that may be what many are forced to do.

Yoletta Nyange is a Rwandan-born journalist who has lived and worked across several countries including UK, Venezuela, Tunisia, Ethiopia and the Sudans, covering international affairs. Erasing The Nuba is Nyange’s highly acclaimed debut documentary.

Follow her on Twitter: @Bubulcusibis

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