African countries in a fix as Rwanda refugee status ends

Saturday January 20 2018

Refugees from Rwanda perform a dance on World Refugee Day in Nairobi.

Refugees from Rwanda perform a dance on World Refugee Day in Nairobi. Their refugee status ended on December 31, 2017. PHOTO | NMG 

JOHNSON KANAMUGIRE
By JOHNSON KANAMUGIRE
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African countries are divided on the fate of Rwandan refugees within their borders following the expiry of the deadline of the cessation clause that effectively ends their refugee status.

The cessation clause is part of the 1951 Refugee Convention, which allows countries to declare that the reasons that led to people fleeing the country no longer exist, and that all those who fled should be able to return or risk losing their refugee status.

The clause for Rwandan refugees was declared by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugee (UNHCR) on June 30, 2013. At the time there were more than 70,000 Rwandan refugees still living in different countries, the majority of whom have voluntarily repatriated or sought asylum where they are.

The implementation of the clause however was met by delays in repatriations and as a result, the December 2014 deadline was extended several times with the new deadline set on December 31, 2017. 

The UNHCR estimates that there are approximately 20,000 Rwandan refugees in different African countries affected by the cessation clause, but who are reluctant to repatriate.

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While Zimbabwe and DR Congo have vowed to invoke the clause, Uganda and Malawi say they will not expel the refugees immediately. Uganda says it will not expel the over 18,000 Rwandan refugees on its soil following the expiry of the deadline because some of them are asylum seekers.

Rwandan refugees in Malawi also pleaded to the UN not to be repatriated forcefully because their security is not guaranteed.

However Zimbabwe and DR Congo said Rwandan refugees who have not formalised their status should leave immediately or will be repatriated forcefully.

Kenya in 2013 said it would need time to vet the refugees and determine those who need asylum. Tanzania is yet to pronounce itself. Zambia says it is still vetting the refugees also to determine who they will grant residency or citizenship.

According to UNHCR, the latest developments indicate that the refugee status for Rwandans in countries that are yet to invoke the cessation clause will remain unchanged after the official deadline came to an end weeks ago.

An associate reporting and public information officer at UNHCR Rwanda Erika Fitzpatrick, told The EastAfrican that Rwandans would not be forced to return regardless of their status.

“UNHCR will not be abandoning the Rwandans who fall under the Comprehensive Solutions Strategy, and will continue to support and advocate for solutions for this large group. The exact modalities are currently being discussed on a country by country basis,” she said.

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