27 April 2009

Uganda: Rwanda - Refugees Unwilling to Return

Mbarara — Pontein Karegyeya, 32, has lived at the Nakivale refugee camp in Uganda since he was a teenager and is unwilling to return home to Rwanda.

Karegyeya, an ethnic Hutu, made his way into Uganda in 1995, fleeing political turmoil after the 1994 genocide in which an estimated 937,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed.

"We were told that the Tutsis would kill all of us," Karegyeya said. "My entire family fled to Uganda; some of my relatives went to Tanzania."

Now married with two children, Karegyeya said his main concern was to ensure he worked harder to feed his family; he did not see himself returning home soon. He is constantly looking for casual work outside the refugee camp.

Karegyeya said some of his relatives had returned to Rwanda only to be taken before local traditional courts, known as gacaca, over "unfounded" genocide charges, and most of them were now in jail.

Karegyeya is one of at least 20,000 Rwandan refugees, mainly ethnic Hutus, who have lived in Uganda since 1994 and are reluctant to be repatriated despite years of relative stability in Rwanda. The UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, has been running a voluntary repatriation programme for Rwandans for the past decade.

Rising camp population

The Rwandan refugees in Uganda are in two camps - Nakivale and Nshungerezi - which, in the past two years, have recorded an increase in their population due to renewed violence in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Consequently, camp officials and government authorities are anxious to decongest the camps.

On 20 April, Rwanda's Local Government Minister Protais Musoni, who is in charge of refugees' repatriation and resettlement, led a government delegation to western Uganda and held talks with Ugandan authorities and the UNHCR over repatriation.

"As far as we know, all the Rwandan refugees in Uganda are willing to be repatriated home; we want them to contribute to the economic development of their country," Musoni said, adding that the delay in repatriation was partly due to logistical problems as well as a lack of proper communication between Rwandan local authorities, UNHCR and refugees.

He said the Rwandan delegation established that some refugees did not know much about new developments in Rwanda due to lack of sensitisation.

"We established that some refugees are not well informed about new developments like gacaca courts and land reforms," Musoni said.

Simon Mutachuka, a senior camp commandant at the Nakivale settlement, said: "They [the refugees] simply are not willing to return home, for reasons best known to themselves."

Facilitating repatriation

Tarsis Kabwengyere, Uganda's Minister for Disaster Preparedness and Refugees, told IRIN separately that Uganda and Rwanda had agreed "in principle" to sensitise all the refugees in the next two months to facilitate their repatriation.

He said a team from the prime minister's office had already been constituted and, with the ministry of internal affairs, district local authorities and the UNHCR, awareness campaigns were scheduled to start in Isingiro district in Uganda, where the camps are located.

"The exercise is voluntary; we have no intentions of forcing refugees out of the country," he said.

Kabwengyere declined to comment on why some refugees were unwilling to return home.

Gacaca fears

Denis Bikesha, the head of mobilisation for gacaca courts, said most of the refugees were unwilling to return home because they had little knowledge about the gacaca justice system.

"They fear prosecution, but they have been misled," he said, adding that rigorous education and mobilisation campaigns would be launched in the Ugandan settlements to ensure that repatriation started in July.

After the Rwandan genocide, some Hutus fled the country, fearing reprisal attacks, and sought refuge in Tanzania, DRC, Uganda and Burundi. Although most have since returned, UNHCR estimates that at least 50,000 refugees remain in exile, mainly in Uganda.

[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]

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