4,000 former refugees from Rwanda offered local integration in Zambia following the cessation of their refugee status in 2013 should not be forced to register with the Rwandan government in order to enjoy rights to freedom of movement in Zambia.
Reports that former Rwandan refugees in Zambia’s Meheba settlement will be required to register with Rwandan authorities as a condition of receiving permission to move freely outside of the settlement are cause for concern. Registration includes the provision of details of family members locally and abroad as well as the acquisition of Rwandan government-issued passports. This requirement is contrary to Zambia’s stated commitment to facilitate the local integration of the former refugees, and places the former refugees and their families at increased risk.
Following the 1994 genocide, a number of Rwandan refugees fled to Zambia where many have remained. The Rwandan government has long pressured all Rwandans in exile to return, including overtures to the Zambian government in 2003, which Rwandans in exile resisted. In 2009, the Rwandan and Zambian governments stepped up efforts to repatriate Rwandans from Zambia, with Rwanda hosting Zambian delegations in Kigali. Shortly thereafter, discussions of administratively ceasing and removing refugee status, and with it international protection, began.
Since 2010, through our Rights in Exile Newsletter and other means, we have cautioned against the invocation of the Cessation Clause, which UNHCR and the Rwandan government have recommended, due to the ongoing risk to Rwandans in Rwanda, ongoing flight of Rwandans from the country, and threats to Rwandans abroad including credible threats to Rwandan refugees in the United Kingdom, South Africa, and Sweden. States have heeded the call for caution, as evidenced by the fact that UNHCR announced during its 2013 annual consultations in Geneva that only four states agreed that the action was appropriate. While Zambia was one of those initially in agreement, it soon withdrew its support for cessation, instead pursuing alternative arrangements. However, it eventually returned to the option of cessation and signed a tripartite agreement with UNHCR and the Rwandan government. In 2013, Zambia implemented the agreement to strip Rwandans of refugee protection.
Regardless of Zambia’s decision to cease refugee protection, 4,000 Rwandans have remained in exile in Zambia. Many express ongoing concerns about their safety vis-a-vis the Rwandan authorities. Rwandans in exile are often perceived by Rwandan authorities as opponents of the Kagame government and a number of instances of assassinations, surveillance, and threats by Rwandan agents have been documented. This has lead to increased fear and widespread suspicion of Rwandan government intentions. Zambia’s insistence that Rwandan former refugees register with the Rwandan government has only intensified their sense of insecurity.
While the government of Zambia has held out the offer for Rwandans to locally integrate, they have recently been required to present Rwandan passports in order to do so. According to Dr Barbara Harrell-Bond, recently returned from Zambia, in order to obtain Rwandan passports former refugees must apply to the Rwandan government using a questionnaire that requires them to “identify each and every relative with addresses, where ever they are in the world.” The Rwandan government is also in the process of establishing an Embassy in Lusaka, further exacerbating exiles’ fear of pursuit by the Rwandan authorities.
Rwandans in Zambia are refusing to acquire these passports, but UNHCR is now regarding their refugee status as “ceased” and no longer recognises the Rwandans as in need of international protection, although it continues to list them as a population “of concern” in their May 2015 Factsheet.
According to Rt. Reverend John Osmers, the Assistant Anglican Bishop of Lusaka, former refugees believe that “acquiring Rwandan government passports puts them under Rwandan government surveillance and control which they see as a danger to their security, and that of their families at home.” Osmers reports that the former refugees see acquiring Rwandan passports as accepting the renunciation of their need for protection, and accepting Rwanda as a “safe place to return to”, which many do not.
Former refugees at Meheba Settlement either must relent to governmental pressure, potentially placing themselves and their families at increased risk, or refuse and accept life without documentation or legal status in the country where they live and indefinite restriction to the camp – a curtailment of basic rights to freedom of movement. Many former refugees have continued to resist the effort.
Reports of the planned restriction of movement of former refugees as an “incentive” for them to approach the Rwandan authorities come on the heels of a recent visit to Kigali of a Zambian government delegation and four former refugees to discuss the issue of Rwandan passports. This visit was followed by the public broadcasting, in Zambia, of a documentary issued by the Zambian Commissioner for Refugees promoting Rwandan refugee repatriation and the need for the group to obtain Rwandan register with Rwandan authorities.
Even as refugee protection is withdrawn, the government of Zambia should be mindful of the ongoing fear of persecution experienced by many Rwandans in exile. IRRI believes the invocation of the cessation clause to be considerably problematic. This has been demonstrated by the need for cessation “exemptions” to be detailed in the tripartite agreement, temporal constraints on the application of cessation procedures, the continued targeting of Rwandans in exile, and the ongoing refugee outflow from Rwanda. Cessation procedures must be conducted in such a way as to allow full due process protections, and refugee protection should not be withdrawn prior to the completion of a full and fair assessment of refugee cases on an individual basis, including consideration of whether those losing refugee status may qualify for other forms of protection post-cessation.
Further, although the offer of local integration is welcome, the government must be mindful of the former refugees’ resistance to return and the reality that local integration will not be a viable solution in practice unless protection remains a primary focus. For Rwandans remaining in exile, this means not requiring registration with potentially persecutory authorities. The restriction of rights as a tool of “encouragement” undermines Zambia’s international commitments and its assurance that Rwandan former refugees who remain in exile will receive an effective alternative status allowing local integration.
IRRI also encourages the Zambian authorities to follow the exemplary action taken by Tanzania and naturalise remaining Rwandans, in line with the intention of commitments previously held under Article 34 of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which states that contracting states shall, “as far as possible facilitate the assimilation and naturalization of refugees. They shall in particular make every effort to expedite naturalization proceedings and to reduce as far as possible the charges and costs of such proceedings.” At the least, Zambia should not use restriction of freedom of movement to “incentivise” an action that could place the former refugees and their families at risk.
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