2 May 2013

Rwanda: Not Safe for Rwandan Refugees to Return

Goma — The Congolese government is demanding a comprehensive strategy for a lasting solution for the repatriation of 127,537 Rwandan refugees estimated to be in the country.

This is according to Congolese Minister of Home Affairs Richard Muyej. He said the government believes that the cessation of refugee status for Rwandese nationals exiled in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is premature. The DRC neighbours the East African state of Rwanda.

The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has designated Jun. 30 as the worldwide cessation of refugee status for Rwandese nationals.

The UNHCR accords this status to refugees who fled Rwanda between 1959 and 1998. The cessation clause, which is binding on refugees and their host countries, requires refugees to choose between voluntary repatriation and residency in their host countries. They can also apply for a continuation of their refugee status on an individual basis.

However, the DRC is opposed to the move.

The Congolese government's position reinforces the stance taken by Rwandese diaspora meeting at the International Conference on Rwandan Refugees held from Apr. 19 to 20 in Brussels. It called upon the UNHCR and asylum countries to consider the safety of Rwandese refugees.

Gervais Condo, the president of the United States-based Rwanda National Congress (CNR), who chaired the Brussels conference, told IPS: "There are no circumstances under which refugee status is a viable long-term solution."

"But we cannot expect refugees to return home when the reasons they went into exile have not been addressed," said Condo, an ally of General Kayumba Nyamwasa, the former chief of staff of the Rwandese army and a founder president of the CNR who is now living in exile in South Africa.

Between 1994, when the Rwanda Patriotic Front came to power following the genocide, and February 2013, the UNHCR has repatriated about 3.5 million Rwandese refugees.

While there are no conclusive figures, it is estimated that the 1994 Rwandan genocide claimed the lives of almost one million people, mostly minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

Meanwhile, Muyej stated that the DRC would only apply the cessation clause after the implementation of the Tripartite Agreement signed between the UNHCR and the Rwandese and DRC governments to ensure that Rwandese refugees wishing to be repatriated are able to return to their country of origin safely and with dignity.

Muyej made these remarks on Apr. 18 at a conference of Ministers of Home Affairs of 11 African countries hosting Rwandese refugees.

However, Rwanda and the UNHCR have declared that there is no justification for extending the status for the refugees after Jun. 30. The Rwandese government has given guarantees that the situation in the Great Lakes country is now safe, and wants the cessation clause provided for in the 1951 Geneva Convention to come into force.

In October 2009, Rwandese President Paul Kagame and Antonio Guterres, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, agreed that Rwandese refugee status would be terminated in June 2011. But opposition from refugees and NGOs prompted the UNHCR to continue discussions with all concerned parties until June 2013.

Refugees remain worried that the situation of freedom of expression and association in Rwanda has not changed, and feel this concern is borne out by the large number of former dignitaries in exile, including former attorney general Gérard Gahima and former Rwandan ambassador Théogène Rudasingwa.

The arrest and trial of Victoire Ingabire, an opposition party candidate during the 2010 presidential elections who was tried and sentenced to eight years in prison for conspiracy against the country, has been cause for concern. On Mar. 25, Amnesty International called for a fair trial for Ingabire that met international standards. The human rights organisation stated that the court failed to test the evidence of the prosecution.

"A number of high-level officials have indicated that Europe does not consider Rwanda to be safe enough for the return of refugees," Condo stressed.

Rwanda's Minister for Disaster Management and Refugee Affairs Séraphine Mukantabana, a former genocide refugee in Congo-Brazzaville who was repatriated in May 2011, declared that Rwandese refugees could not benefit from limitless refugee status when there was peace in the country.

"We have been encouraging voluntary repatriation, as many refugees will find it difficult to remain in their host countries. Those who wish to apply for refugee status on an individual basis will not have grounds to appeal to the UNHCR," said Mukantabana, who was also the president of the Rwandese refugees' association in Congo-Brazzaville.

To ease the situation, Rwanda will deliver national passports to Rwandese who wish to stay in their country of asylum after Jun. 30.

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