Finding a home at last? Rwandan exiles in Zambia

Published: 7 Aug 2013
By: Rt Rev John Osmers

On 30th June this year, the day of the cessation of their refugee status, one and a half thousand Rwandan refugees crowded into the Lusaka Anglican Cathedral in a church service organised by Zambian church leaders to hear the Minister of Home Affairs reaffirm that they could continue to make their home in Zambia. The message quickly spread on mobile phones to thousands of other Rwandan refugees in Meheba refugee settlement far from Lusaka. The news brought much rejoicing. For years, Rwandan refugees have been told they should return home, and 30th June 2013 could have been a day of disaster.

The Tripartite Agreement that declared that Rwanda was safe for the 6000 Rwandan refugees in Zambia to return home was signed in 2003 between the Movement for Multiparty Democracy Government of Zambia, UNHCR and Government of Rwanda. Only a few hundred agreed to repatriate, and since the agreement, Rwandan refugees have been apprehensive about forced return and do not believe the political climate to be conducive for return.  Those in exile are accused of being “genocidaires” or of intimidating others from returning.  Since 2003, the Rwandan Government has pressurized UNHCR and African Governments to ensure all exiles return home to live under Rwandan Government control.

On 10th September 2011, Rwandan refugee fears increased when Zambia became the first country to initiate interviews to determine who among the Rwandan refugees may remain in Zambia, although Zambia is far from Rwanda, and holds only 5% of the total of Rwandan refugees, compared to the 53% in the DRCongo and 14% in Uganda. The interviews were organised by the Commissioner for Refugees’ Office supported by the UNHCR. Of 4000 interviewed, only about 10% were allowed to remain, the remainder being told they must return home. Their appeals still lie on the desk of the Minister of Home Affairs.

The three main church bodies in Zambia – the Council of Churches of Zambia, the Zambia Episcopal Conference and the Evangelical Fellowship of Zambia – made commendable efforts to ensure that Rwandans should return voluntarily without coercion. They made such a statement on World Refugee Day in 2005, and individual church bodies have made similar statements since then, especially the Catholic Bishops in their Pastoral Letter of January 2012. A street demonstration was organised at the same time with help from the Amnesty Refugee Help desk, with a funeral cortege carrying a coffin, challenging UNHCR and the Commissioner for Refugees’ office to slaughter and cremate all Rwandan refugees and to send their ashes to Rwanda in the coffin.

The Patriotic Front that came into government in Zambia in September 2011 has listened to the pleas of Rwandan refugees, the evidence of human rights’ organizations and the views of the churches that it is not yet safe for Rwandans to return   home. On 28th May at an interministerial meeting in Pretoria, the Minister of Home Affairs, the Hon Edgar Lungu, MP, announced that Zambia would facilitate the local integration of Rwandan refugees dependent   on international support. On 25th June the Office of the Commissioner for Refugees in collaboration with the UNHCR advertised for an expert consultant to advise on the local integration of 4000 Rwandan former refugees. The Lusaka Cathedral service on 30th June, with the Minister of Home Affairs as Guest of Honour, reaffirmed the co-operation of Government and the Churches for the future welfare of Rwandan former refugees in Zambia.

Some challenges remain.  Local integration of former refugees is dependent on international support to empower communities which agree to host the former refugees. Former refugees are being told they need Rwandan passports issued in Zambia to obtain Zambian residence permits. They fear this as a form of Rwandan government control. There is the need of Rwandan students for help with tertiary education, now that UNHCR DAFI sponsorship is no longer available, as well as help for the sick and vulnerable who no longer have UNHCR support.  There is hope that with goodwill on all sides these problems can be overcome.

Of course, the local integration of 4000 exiles cannot happen overnight. The Zambian Government has suggested three years. It involves sensitive issues such as allocation of land for subsistence farmers who form the greater number of former refugees. There is also the need for the social integration of Rwandans within their host communities, rather than forming isolated groups.

Rwandan former refugees look forward to continue making their home in Zambia over the coming years until they themselves judge it safe to return home. In the mean time, they will enhance the development of Zambia and its reputation as a haven for those in need of protection.

Programmes: Statelessness, Citizenship and Right to a Nationality
Regions: Great Lakes Region, Rwanda
Type: IRRI Blog