Refugees fate in the balance as cessation clause comes into play

Friday July 22 2016

Rwandan refugees are being urged to return home. PHOTO | FILE

Rwandan refugees are being urged to return home. PHOTO | FILE 

By ROBERT MBARAGA

The future of thousands of Rwandan refugees expected to return home and get reintegrated hangs in the balance as the definitive cessation of refugee status is implemented.

Over 2,000 Rwandans currently living in different countries are expected to return home by December 31 which is the last day, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) will provide transport and cash grants to Rwandan refugees wishing to repatriate voluntarily.

However, December 31, 2017 will be see definitive cessation of refugee status for Rwandan refugees. The clause concerns those who left the country between the years 1959 and 1998.

Despite calls for voluntary repatriation, there is growing concern over limited financial resources to cater for the logistics to facilitate full integration of the refugees.

The government has to also ensure that there are programmes to enable returnees become self-reliant. Ministry of Disaster Management and Refugee Affairs (Midmar) is now appealing to the government to allocate a special budget to cater for returnees.

“Most of the time parliament tells us that returnees would be taken care of through existing programmes designed for vulnerable people but to some extent this can’t work because these people are not in existing social categories,” Seraphine Mukantabana, the Minister in charge of Midmar told parliament this week.

Briefing parliament on the current status of implementation of the cessation clause early this week, the Midmar highlighted the country’s limited capacity to handle the refugees pointing out that the government is still largely relying on external support to carry out the integration programmes.

“We rely on international organisations’ aid and if they were to stop, we would not be able to do it ourselves” said Ms Mukantabana.
Last year the government spent more than Rwf209 million reintegrating returnees, however officials say “the budget is not enough and not all returnees were assisted.”

The government has been seeking financial support to its reintegration plans. However, it has expressed concern over delays in disbursement of funds.

Specifically, for the reintegration of Rwandan refugees the government is faced with a dilemma of mobilising resources.
“We have a project that would help us handle the situation on our own, but we don’t have funds yet,” said Ms Mukantabana.

According to the Midmar, the project of Sustainable Return and Reintegration funded by One-UN has an initial budget of $11M but has faced funding challenges since its launch in 2011, and at present more than a half of the budget is not yet available.

Reintegration of refugees

If the UNHCR stops catering for transport of refugees as per the 2016 deadline this will stretch the already heavy government burden even more.
In its Global Appeal report of 2016-2017 the UNHCR has budgeted Rwf4 billion for reintegration of refugees in Rwanda.
Statistics indicate that 5,135 refugees returned to Rwanda last year while as per end of June only 2,798 have returned.

Five years since the invocation of the cessation clause in 2011 shows that 46,894 Rwandan refugees have returned to the country mostly from DRC and Uganda.

The government hopes that the definitive cessation of Rwandan refugee status will finally be effected after it was pushed from June 2013.
It argues that with the current wave of political instability around the region as well as around the world that has led to the emergence of new refugees from countries such as South Sudan, Burundi as well as Syria, this set of refugees should be given priority.

“The international community does not have any reason to keep helping people with no valid reason to remain refugees while there are other priorities facing imminent danger,” Ms Mukantabana said.

The UN’s refugee agency indicates that 286,386 Rwandans are still refugees but this number is subject to scrutiny because DRC says that it hosts more than 245,000 extra refugees who are not in the biometric database of UNHCR.

Those who do not want to return to Rwanda because of the socio-economic ties they have established with their host countries may choose to stay there but hold Rwandan travel documents.

Another category is of those who can apply for exemption of the application of cessation clause basing on persistent reasons for instance fear of persecution.

The number of those who opted to remain in their host countries is not yet known, however the government of Rwanda says refugees are reluctant to get Rwandan travel documents arguing that those who have applied so far are less than 100.

The “UNHCR 2015 Global Report” indicates that “local integration opportunities were being sought for more than 3,700 former Rwandan refugees in Zambia.”

This comes at a time when government is already facing intense pressure on its resources because of Burundian refugees.

Currently Rwanda is home to around 160,000 refugees mainly from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi with a little number of refugees with other nationalities.

The newest camp, Mahama, opened in April 2015, is home to almost 50,000 Burundian refugees.