The group refugee status of tens of thousands of Rwandans who fled their country in the wake of the 1994 genocide could be lifted by the end of 2011, according to UN and Rwandan officials.
Since 2002, Kigali has been keen to see invoked a clause in the 1951 refugee convention which allows for refugee status to be lifted if the conditions in a country that led to mass exodus are deemed to have changed in a fundamental, durable and effective way. This "ceased circumstances" clause is one of the convention’s cessation clauses.
Of the several million, mostly Hutu Rwandans who fled their country after the genocide, around 60,000 still live as refugees in neighbouring states. The government in Kigali has been unable to allay their fears that it is not safe to return home.
"There is no reason why Rwandan citizens should stay in the Democratic Republic of Congo [DRC], Uganda or Burundi as refugees, when their country is stable. We are pleased that we have reached common ground with UNHCR [UN Refugee Agency] over the cessation clause," Rwanda’s local government minister, Christophe Bizivamo, said recently.
According to UNHCR spokesman Yusuf Hassan, this common ground consists of a commitment "to work on a road map of activities and benchmarks which, if met, would allow the invocation of the cessation clause for Rwandan refugees by 31 December 2011."
Key points of this roadmap include:
- Actively enhancing voluntary repatriation of Rwandan refugees
- Implementing effective reintegration projects to make returns sustainable
- Securing rights for Rwandan refugees who are unable or unwilling to return, through regularizing their stay in their current country of residence, or confirming their need for continued international protection.
Once the cessation clause is invoked and blanket international protection is lifted, some individual Rwandans who are still unwilling to return home could retain refugee status by invoking "compelling reasons arising out of previous persecution".
"This exception is intended to cover instances where a person who - or whose family - has suffered under atrocious forms of persecution, should not be expected to repatriate," said the UNHCR’s Hassan.
"Even though there may have been a change of regime in his country, this may not always produce a complete change in the attitude of the population, nor, in view of his past experiences, in the mind of the refugee. Whether or not the Rwandans in DRC and Burundi fall under that category will have to be determined," he added.