About 100,000 Rwandans who fled the country have lost their refugee status and must return home, regularise their stay in their host countries, or risk living as stateless individuals.
This follows the coming into effect of the cessation clause on June 30, meaning none of these Rwandans can enjoy international protection and assistance as refugees — because the circumstances under which they became refugees have ceased to exist.
They can no longer claim assistance from the global refugee body, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. This assistance includes food, medical care, clothing, shelter, seeds and tools, social services, counselling, or help to resettle in another country.
The cessation clause is provided for under the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and international humanitarian law considers refugee status a temporary condition and envisages a situation when the status can be revoked.
The development is a major victory for Rwanda, which has since 2002 been petitioning the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to invoke the cessation clause.
The Rwanda government argued that it had achieved peace and stability and there was no longer any reason for its citizens to continue to claim refugee status.
The development is expected to boost Rwanda’s global profile by shaking off the negative image that the country acquired in the wake of the 1994 genocide.
More than three million Rwandans fled to neighbouring countries, as well as Europe and the United States of America, in the aftermath of the 1994 genocide. But the majority have returned home, or have settled in other countries.
In 2011, some 7,600 Rwandan refugees, mainly from the DRC, returned home with UNHCR’s assistance. In 2012, by the end of August, more than 8,000 Rwandans had returned.
Now, the UNHCR estimates that nearly 100,000 Rwandan refugees remain scattered in neighbouring countries, particularly the Democratic Republic of Congo. With the coming into force of the cessation clause, the UNHCR is officially closing the book on the Rwandan refugee situation.
Rwanda’s Minister for Disaster Management and Refugee Affairs Seraphine Mukantabana, who was until a few years ago in exile in Congo Brazzaville, said the government was ready to issue those willing to return with passports, and also temporarily host those returning.
But some affected Rwandans say they are not ready to return to the country for either political reasons or for fear that they might not get a place to settle, as the country does not have adequate land.
But the UNHCR representative to Rwanda, Neimah Warsame, said several considerations were taken in to account and assessments done before the decision to declare a cessation clause was reached. She adds that no one is being forced to return.
“In 2009, UNHCR with all the stakeholders crafted what we came to term as a ‘durable solution’ for the Rwandan refugee situation. We looked at four key components — voluntary repatriation, integration in local communities, assessment of those who may require international protection and the finishing line, which is the cessation clause,” she explains.
At least 3,437,472 refugees have returned since 1994. This year alone over 3, 500 returned.
Returnees receive three-month food rations from the UNHCR, as well as basic non-food items such as clothes, blankets and cooking pots, before proceeding to their districts of origin.
Between the beginning of 2012 and the end of August, more than 8,000 returnees had been received and assisted by UNHCR.
However, in order to sustain their reintegration, returnees also need support in obtaining skills that would make them employable, or starting income-generating activities. The UNHCR says that returnees face extreme poverty and a lack of land, shelter and medical coverage.
There are few job opportunities, and many have to walk long distances in search of water. Because of these challenges, there has been a lot of resistance from refugees in neighbouring countries including DR Congo, Uganda, Tanzania, Congo Brazaville, Zimbabwe, Malawi and Zambia, with some countries saying they will not force refugees to return to Rwanda.
While countries like Uganda have said they will immediately honour the cessation clause declaration by repatriating the 4,500 refugees in refugee camps in Uganda, others including Zambia and DRC say they will need time before they can honour the UN declaration.
According to Ms Warsame, some countries have asked for extension of time either because of legal or logistical issues.
There has been opposition to the invoking of the cessation groups from exiled opposition groups, including the South Africa-based Rwandan National Congress, which claims that the Rwandan government is using the cessation clause to isolate its political opponents.
The groups have been mobilising Rwandan refugees abroad to protest the declaration of the cessation clause but the Rwandan government says it has nothing to do with politics.