Rwanda will repatriate more of its refugees and asylum seekers living in Uganda, say officials, insisting that concerns about forced returns are misplaced.
"We are not forcing them, but what is being done is to sensitize these refugees to return home and join their relatives," Rwanda's Minister for Refugees and Disaster Preparedness, General Marcel Gatsinzi, said. "We know that most of them were denied refugee status because they did not qualify for it."
In July, Rwandan and Ugandan authorities repatriated 1,700 Rwandans who were living in Nakivale and Kyaka in western Uganda in a police operation that was heavily criticized by advocacy groups and the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR.
"We saw an increasing number of Rwandan refugees coming to us after that round of deportation to express their fears of being sent back," said Chris Dolan, director of the Kampala-based Refugee Law Project (RLP). "These people should not be forced to return home because such repatriation exposes them to serious risks and violates obligations under domestic and international law."
International refugee law recognizes three solutions for such situations - voluntary repatriation, local integration and resettlement to a third country. According to the RLP, fewer than a third of Rwandan refugees in Uganda have opted to return home since the current repatriation began.
David Apollo Kazungu, acting commissioner for refugee affairs in the Ugandan Prime Minister's office, said the Rwandans were being “encouraged” to go home.
"Repatriation is a process," he told IRIN on 3 November. "We encourage them daily to go home and when we get somebody who is ready, we facilitate him to go."
Officially, he said, the number of Rwandan refugees living in Uganda was close to 15,000. "Most of these are in Nakivale and Kyaka," he added. "There could be some illegal immigrants, but they are not in the refugee settlements."
UNHCR, on 16 July, said since the beginning of this year, 3,320 Rwandans had filed for asylum in Uganda. Ninety-eight per cent were rejected in the six months, raising concerns that asylum applications were not being determined properly and fairly by Ugandan authorities.
Gatsinzi said the planned repatriation targeted up to 20,000 people. "We cannot explain why a number of these Rwandan refugees in Uganda refuse to join the voluntary repatriation process," he told IRIN.
Rwanda plans to invoke the cessation clause by December 2011 which will end refugee status and accompanying international protection for Rwandans living in Uganda. "The misapplication of the clause for any group of refugees risks exposing them to serious human rights violations, and itself constitutes a breach of international protection," the RLP said earlier.
"Accordingly, the decision to invoke the cessation clause on any group of refugees must not be done in haste and should be considered very carefully."
Rwandan officials insist the returns are voluntary. Innocent Ngango, executive secretary of the Rwandan National Council of Refugees, said the number had reached 1,900. "The voluntary repatriation of Rwandan refugees [from] the two camps of Nakivale and Nshungerezi [in southwestern Uganda] started early in April," he said.
The vice-mayor of Gicumbi, where those who were deported in July were kept at Rukomo camp for a few days, denied they were forced back home. "This is totally wrong, unless some of these returnees expressed fear to be reinserted into their respective village," Eugenie Uwamahoro told IRIN in her office on 28 October.
"We know that some of them are fleeing justice after having participated in 1994 genocide against the Tutsi," she added.
Asked why the returnees were rapidly sent back to their villages, Uwamahoro said: "When these returnees from Uganda arrived in the country, we were not in a position to treat them as internally displaced refugees, because most of them still have families and relatives who could look after them upon arrival in their respective village."
Photo: Erich Ogoso/IRIN
|A typical hillside in Rwanda: Returnees are struggling to settle in their villages and to be accepted by their former neighbours|
Rukomo had capacity for 500 people and lacked water and adequate sleeping space, forcing some to sleep in the open. "The camp was basically an abandoned facility," an aid worker told IRIN. During a visit to the camp on 28 October, a source told IRIN the returnees were held under armed guard.
Sources told IRIN some of the returnees were struggling to settle in their villages and to be accepted by their former neighbours. Felicien Mutemberezi, 48, a farmer from the northern Gicumbi District, told IRIN: "It is a disgrace that some of us are being treated as second-class citizens by our neighbours."
Most of the people in his community, he added, referred to his family as “refugees” because they had been away for 16 years. He acknowledged that the Rwandan government had provided some housing and domestic requirements, although he had failed to regain ownership of his land.
However, Gatsinzi refuted claims that the returnees were facing hardship in their home villages. "The government has always been providing to those returnees all facilities and necessary packages to help them resettle into society," he told IRIN.