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The International Refugee Rights Initiative and the Refugee Law Project co-host launch of a paper on the current situation of Rwandan refugees in Uganda.

A Dangerous Impasse:
Rwandan Refugees in Uganda


Monday 28th June 2010
3pm – 5pm Presentations and discussion
Africana Hotel, Kampala

The paper, “A Dangerous Impasse: Rwandan Refugees in Uganda”, examines why refugees living in Uganda’s Nakivale settlement are refusing to return to Rwanda despite considerable push factors. Based on 102 interviews with Rwandan refugees, UN and government officials, the findings make it clear that there are legitimate reasons for the refugees’ stance. To the extent that refugee groups can act as a barometer of the situation at home, the findings are a serious indictment of the current Rwandan government. Refugees view the government as repressive, and dissent in many aspects of life is not tolerated. Those who question the regime are subjected to human rights violations that include discrimination in employment, imprisonment and forced disappearance. As a result, refugees are not only reluctant to return home, they are afraid.

Specifically, the horrific events of the 1994 genocide are being used by the government of Rwanda as a smokescreen for political repression, particularly through the association of Hutu identity with the genocide. Ongoing abuses of justice – particularly in relationship to grassroots gacaca courts – are continuing to feed ethnic divisions, compromising people’s ability to live without fear and to reclaim or retain their land and other property. Far from burying the ethnic hatchet, the findings suggest that human rights abuses are taking place under the government of Rwanda’s watch in the name of ethnic difference. Rather than addressing this root cause of violence, therefore, current attitudes and approaches promoted by the government and epitomised in the collective assumption of guilt attributed to Hutus, are only exacerbating the situation.

The findings also show that although repression is seen in ethnicised terms, the real issue is the fact that there is little space for any political opposition within Rwanda regardless of ethnicity. As a result, while the genocide and its immediate aftermath might have been the original cause of flight for many, ongoing political repression in Rwanda is not only preventing refugees from returning, but is generating new refugees. In fact, almost a quarter of all those interviewed had arrived in Uganda since 2001. This version of the current realities of life in Rwanda, as seen through the eyes of a group of refugees who have suffered acutely as a result, suggests a different image from the one the government has presented to the outside world, and indicates that extreme caution needs to be taken with respect to the promotion of voluntary repatriation.

The official policy response has been to deny Rwandan refugees access to land and impose deadlines for return. This policy lacks recognition of the genuine protection concerns that many Rwandan refugees express and is jeopardising their safety. As a result, unwilling to return to Rwanda, tens of thousands of refugees continue to wait in suspense, either to be forcibly repatriated or to disappear and pretend to be Ugandan or Congolese. They are not only being denied effective national protection, but also most of the rights attached to refugee status. Until the structures and policies that dictate the lives of refugees on both sides of the border accommodate these political realities, their lives will remain profoundly vulnerable.

In light of these findings, the paper makes a number of recommendations to the governments of Uganda and Rwanda, and to UNHCR in order to improve protection for this group of refugees. Ultimately, however, such measures, while critical to the current protection of the refugees, will be palliative until root causes of flight and ongoing displacement have been addressed. In particular, there needs to be a far more honest appraisal of what took place during and after the genocide. Until this happens, the potential for ethnically-aligned violence to be reignited will remain, Rwanda may once again erupt into violence, and refugees will continue to fear return. Moreover, the knock-on effect of the genocide will continue to be felt throughout the region.