Controversy on return of Rwanda refugees is unnecessary

Wednesday January 17 2018

Rwandan returnees on arrival at Gatuna border from Nakivale Refugee Camp in Uganda

Rwandan returnees on arrival at Gatuna border from Nakivale Refugee Camp in Uganda. PHOTO FILE | NATION 

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There is one important reason why the war between the government of Juvenal Habyarimana and the Rwanda Patriotic Front — at the time led by refugees who had lived in exile for over three decades, became inevitable.

It was the government’s steadfast policy not to allow the refugees to return to the country of their ancestors and reclaim their rights as full citizens. Underlying the government’s position was the argument that Rwanda was “too small” to accommodate all those who might lay claim to citizenship and seek to live in the country.

The number of refugees in Rwanda’s immediate neighbourhood — Uganda, Burundi, the then Zaire, Kenya and Tanzania — and even farther afield, ran into the hundreds of thousands. Not all of them wanted or sought to return. Many had integrated into the various communities where they lived in their countries of refuge and in some instances been assimilated.

Even where assimilation had not taken place, many of the very young did not even think of themselves as Rwandans. Nor were they even aware of their connections to the country where their parents or grandparents had come from.

One hears stories of descendants of longstanding refugees taunting newcomers in the same way members of indigenous communities might do.

There were those, young and old, however, for whom the desire to go home was very strong. They were prepared to do anything to achieve their dream and considered the right to return to be non-negotiable.

The gravest mistake Rwanda’s political elite at the time made was not to understand this and the determination underlying it.

That they did not understand became clear when they told the refugees to forget about returning and instead seek the citizenship of the countries where they lived, where for the most part they were marginalised and reminded constantly that they did not belong.

In so doing, the political elite left the refugees no choice but to seek their own solution to their predicament, which was to use force. The rest, as is often put, is history.

Learning RPF

In years of studying Rwanda and living there, I have discovered many things about the Rwanda Patriotic Front and the government it has led over the past 24 years: Their capacity for learning and applying the lessons they learn to what they do. This is hardly unique.

However, research has shown that political parties and governments in Africa rarely do this. When they try, they are rarely good at it.

One of the lessons RPF has learnt is never to deny any Rwandan the right to live in their country. Since they assumed power, many steps have been taken to ensure that Rwandans living outside the country renew and maintain active links with their motherland, and that those who wish to return but do not have the means are helped to do so.

This help could be through such initiatives as the government-funded “come and see, go and tell,” under which Rwandans who have lived outside the country for a long time are encouraged and helped to visit and see for themselves how far the country has come, and go back and tell others about what they have seen and experienced.

There is also the Annual Rwanda Day, which is celebrated in countries with large populations of Rwandans, who get the opportunity to interact with fellow countrymen, government officials included, who travel there for the purpose.

Despite all these efforts, there are Rwandans who have been living outside their country as refugees, and who have invoked fear of persecution to avoid returning.

On December 31, 2017, however, after the notice they were given by United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in 2013 expired, those who fled the country between 1959 and 1998 and have been living in countries whose governments believe they have no well-founded fear of persecution, ceased to be refugees and to enjoy international protection under the 1951 Refugee Convention.

The only choices they have is to return to Rwanda voluntarily or to apply for citizenship or permanent residence in their host countries, both of which are seen as durable solutions to their plight.

For some time now, the government of Rwanda has been offering incentives to would-be returnee refugees, including free health insurance for a year, free food for three months, and cash grants.

The UNHCR’s invocation of the cessation clause of the Refugee Convention has, however, not failed to attract controversy. Human-rights activists, academics and researchers and some governments are opposed to these developments, arguing that Rwanda is not safe.

Also busy pushing the “not safe” corner are suspected participants in the Genocide against the Tutsi, who fear prosecution. These people find safety in cloaking themselves in refugee garb.

There are also economic migrants who are out to build new lives for themselves. For the latter, nothing offers greater security from forced repatriation than refugee status.

Perhaps the strongest argument these groups have put up is the one against forced repatriation of individuals who have no crimes to answer for in Rwanda and who prefer to continue living where they are as they build new lives for themselves. In this they are in harmony with the government of Rwanda. And yet the controversy carries on, the critics seemingly oblivious of the fact that the government actually agrees with them.

Frederick Golooba-Mutebi is a Kampala-based researcher and writer on politics and public affairs. E-mail: [email protected]