Rwandan refugees face no choice but repatriation

The UNHCR admits that that refugees fleeing Rwanda after 1998 still may have a well-founded fear of persecution, so what lies behind its decision to invoke the Cessation Clause?

Barbara Harrell-Bond
10 May 2012

Large numbers of Rwandans have been escaping their country at different times since its independence in 1962. The political instability and the ethnic tensions that led to the 1994 genocide are the principal factors explaining their flight. These Rwandan refugees, who have sought asylum all over the world, are today facing the cessation of their refugee status.

The Cessation Clause (Art. 1 C(5)), of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees essentially defines the refugee status as temporary, calling on States to facilitate their prior naturalization. When the Cessation Clause is invoked, these provisions end the international protection of a specific group of refugees, unless they can argue ‘compelling reasons on the grounds of past persecution’. UNHCR has now recommended all States to invoke the Cessation Clause for Rwandan refugees on 30 June 2013, but only for those who fled events occurring between 1959 and 1998. However, according to UNHCR’s Handbook on Procedures and Criteria for Determining Refugee Status , the Cessation Clause can be invoked only when fundamental, durable and positive changes in the country have occurred, and which can be assumed to remove the basis for the fear of persecution.

Recommending the Cessation Clause for Rwanda is thus assuming that the reasons for a person becoming a refugee ‘have ceased to exist’ and that ‘fundamental changes in the country’ have occurred. However, the UNHCR recommendation directly admits that refugees fleeing after 1998 may still have a well-founded fear of persecution; thus contradicting the idea that such fundamental, durable and positive character of these changes have occurred.

NGOs, such as Amnesty International, raise important concerns with the instability of Rwanda and the lack of protection of fundamental human rights under Kagame’s administration, especially the violations of freedom of expression and the vague charge of ‘genocide ideology’, a law heavily criticized by Amnesty. This constitutes one of the charges against Victoire Ingabire, an opposition leader to came back from exile (that preceded the genocide), to Rwanda to start an opposition party and who is now facing a life sentence; and Peter Erlinder, formerly the lead defence counsel at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, who came to Rwanda to defend her. There are also other concerns such as the Kagame government’s claims to free and fair elections and substantive democratic reforms. In light of the evidence that civil and political rights in Rwanda continue to be violated, how can it be argued that fundamental and durable change has occurred justifying the invocation of the Cessation Clause for Rwanda?

Moreover, UNHCR’s assessment of changes in Rwanda continues to be debated internally. For example, UNHCR’s European Bureau in Brussels assured us that States in Europe are unlikely to follow the recommendation to invoke the Cessation Clause for Rwandan refugees. The Bureau noted that the majority of Rwandans have been locally integrated in their host States. The good news for Rwandan asylum seekers in Europe is that governments have been advised. by UNHCR’s European Bureau, not to consider Rwanda as a safe country (Recording, Telephone call, 17/04/12). The hope was expressed by UNHCR’s representative in Belgium that the recommendation will not affect those in Europe still seeking asylum for persecution occurring after 1998.

According to the UNHCR Executive Committee Conclusion 69, before invoking the Cessation Clause, ‘States must carefully assess the fundamental character of the changes in the country of nationality or origin’ (emphasis added). Understanding that both the invocation of the Cessation Clause and the assessment of fundamental changes are States’ responsibilities, why does UNHCR seems to be leading the discussion of States’ obligations? What is driving UNHCR’s agenda?

The cessation of refugee status itself is not the only fundamental problem raised by this recommendation. Another main issue represents the absence of local integration policies and the absence of choice faced by Rwandan refugees. Cessation, were it preceded by opportunities for other immigration statuses in Africa and elsewhere (such as permanent residence, naturalisation, or, at the least, work permits), it might have some legitimacy. However, unlike Europe, up to now, no provisions have materialised for Rwandan refugees in Africa to locally ‘integrate’ (to use UNHCR jargon of ‘durable solutions’). Still Geneva’s global cessation recommendation looms - the date now 30 June 2013.

Most Rwandan refugees have lived in their host countries for more than twenty years; what motivates UNHCR’s rush to recommend cessation at this time is thus unclear. How can refugees be asked to choose between repatriation and local integration when the terms of ‘local integration’ have not yet been defined?

Liberian and Angolan refugees are facing the exact same situation since their host country’s have not yet developed local integration policies even though they are facing cessation now. Per example, in Ghana it was reported by The Daily Guide that provision for Liberians’ local integration ‘has not yet been defined by the Ghana government’ and this is less than two months before final invocation, 30 June 2012. This situation is not unique to Ghana; the Lusaka Times reported that Angolans in Zambia are also facing cessation in the absence of local integration policies and press releases from Zambia suggest they have no intention of doing so. What choices are refugees expected to make if there is no provision for local integration? The truth is that there is no choice.


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