Playing with people’s lives: the plight of Rwandan refugees in the Great Lakes region

Published: 11 Jul 2013
By: Lucy Hovil

Being a Rwandan refugee living in the Great Lakes region right now is a dangerous occupation, not least in Uganda where tens of thousands continue to live in exile. They have been, and continue to be, caught up in power games that are being played out across the region and beyond with the government of Rwanda making up many of the rules. The deployment of international refugee law – in particular the concept of cessation – has become one framework for this manipulation: it has been used as a threat rather than a mechanism for generating protection, leaving tens of thousands in a state of constant uncertainty.

In many respects this is not a new story. In fact, it is a very old story the beginning of which can be traced to the genocide in Rwanda that set in motion a decade of turmoil, exile and unspeakable violence across the region. Or earlier, to the abuse of power and the manipulation of identities by the colonial government that led to post-colonial conflict. Regardless, it has its roots in a decade and half of political manoeuvring with refugees caught somewhere in the middle.

Within this context, talk of cessation for Rwandan refugees across the region – the mechanism in international law by which refugee status is formally withdrawn – has increased over the past years, not least since 2010 when a communiqué was signed by the governments of Uganda, Rwanda and UNHCR stating that “the status of Rwandan refugees in the Republic of Uganda shall cease when the cessation clause is invoked by 2010.”[1] Since then, public statements have created an increasingly unsettling environment for those who remain in exile, with constantly renewed cessation deadlines, reduction in humanitarian assistance and the refusal of asylum to those newly fled. And all of this was reinforced by the government of Uganda forcibly returning hundreds of refugees to Rwanda in July 2010. Most recently ten days ago Uganda’s Monitor newspaper stated that 14,000 Rwandans in Nakivale settlement no longer had refugee status. Such irresponsible reporting is not only inaccurate, but dangerous: it generates extraordinary amounts of fear for those whose lives are already precarious.

It is encouraging, therefore, that today the Ugandan government, through the Office of the Prime Minister, issued a statement saying that although “in principle” it supports cessation for “Rwandan refugees who fled between 1959 and 1998”, it has not yet invoked cessation “for various reasons including lack of requisite resources”. It also states that exemption procedures have not yet been embarked upon, and that other avenues for legal status have not yet been sufficiently explored. The statement effectively recognises the value of alternative ‘durable solutions’ to the default position of promoting repatriation, that most fashionable of solutions: it talks of ‘alternative legal means of stay’ for Rwandan refugees, as well as the need to explore ‘naturalization and local integration’.

This is certainly good news, and IRRI welcomes this statement.

However, two problems remain. First, there is the lack of clarity and information on the process that has left refugees in a permanent state of uncertainty.  The statement issued today – 10 days after newspaper reports had stated that Rwandans were no longer entitled to refugee status – goes some way to address this, but in reality it is likely to be just a temporary reprieve: surely it is only a matter of time before more rumours begin to spread and fear and uncertainty grow once more? So yes, we thank the government for finally making its interim position clear, but we request that this be the first of many such statements that keeps refugees – and those working with them – unequivocally informed as to what is going on. This will is not only fair to the refugee community but vital as it will allow them greater physical security.

The second and more fundamental problem, however, is the appropriateness of cessation itself. In the first instance, and contrary to the somewhat naïve position taken by much of the international community (although this is changing), the situation in Rwanda is not conducive to return for all those in exile (see IRRI research). Given the extraordinarily strong push factors experienced by refugees over the past years, it is likely that the majority of those who feel it is safe to return have already done so. In fact today, Uganda has joined a growing line of African states that have said they do not feel it is appropriate to declare a blanket cessation for Rwandan refugees at this time. Therefore, while we recognise that the eventual deployment of cessation is somewhat inevitable in the current political context, the lack of serious engagement to date by the international community in supporting states to explore alternatives to return for those who still need protection has been particularly troubling. In fact, it seems to have been national governments – those closest to the ground – that have responded more realistically and sensitively to the complex realities of the Rwandan refugee plight.

Therefore, we encourage the government of Uganda to show good on its intensions as expressed in today’s statement. In particular, we urge the government – as well as other governments in the region – to allow for their permanent integration through long term residence and naturalisation of Rwandan refugees who wish to remain. At the end of the day, exile benefits no-one, and it is completely unacceptable for these refugees to live with any more uncertainty. After two decades in exile, their children deserve to start the school term knowing they can finish it, and to come home each day and eat a proper meal. Anything less is a failure on the part of the government and the international community.



[1] See Joint Communique of the 8th Tripartite Commission Meeting, 13 May 2010, on file with IRRI.

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