The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNCHR) has warned Rwandans whose refugee status ended on December 31, 2017 it will no longer provide the same material support it used to following the invocation of the cessation clause.
The cessation clause concerns Rwandans who fled the country between 1959 and 1998, and its invocation means that they require no more international protection because fundamental, effective and durable changes in their country of origin guarantee that there is no well-founded fear of persecution.
The December 31, 2017 date was arrived at by the UNHCR, Rwandan government and host countries.
In an interview with The New Times yesterday, an official with the UN agency reiterated the need for the former refugees to voluntarily repatriate.
Nana Heltberg, the associate external relations officer at UNHCR Rwanda Office, however, said the UN agency will not entirely abandon the former refugees, adding that they will continue to provide limited support and advocacy depending on the situation.
While UNHCR says it estimates that some 269,500 Rwandans are still refugees, Rwanda’s Ministry for Disaster Management and Refugee Affairs’ records put the figure at about 16,000.
The Minister for Disaster Management and Refugees Affairs, De Bonheur Jeanne d’Arc, largely blamed the discrepancy on the fact that the number of those in DR Congo remains unclear.
Both the government and UNHCR say no one has returned home since the expiry of the deadline on December 31 but noted they expected to start receiving new arrivals in the next few days.
The UN agency said they agreed with Kigali that UNHCR will continue to support voluntary repatriation in 2018.
The duration for this support, it said, is pending further discussion between government and UNHCR and it will be informed by circumstances at hand.
“In practical terms, in the countries that have not invoked cessation, the status of Rwandan refugees will remain unchanged after 31 December 2017, after the deadline of UNHCR’s comprehensive solutions strategy though UNHCR’s material assistance may be limited,” Heltberg told The New Times.
She added that in countries that invoked the cessation clause, UNHCR will continue to advocate for the pursuit of all efforts to provide the former refugees an alternative legal stay.
“UNHCR has been urging all host countries to favourably consider locally integrating particularly the refugees with strong family, social and economic ties to them. Some countries had specifically requested flexibility as regards UNHCR’s recommendation to implement the cessation clause, for national reasons,” she added.
Heltberg noted that UNHCR continues to work with all host countries and the Government of Rwanda to establish durable solutions for Rwandan refugees regardless of their status.
Both minister De Bonheur Jeanne d’Arc and UNHCR’s Heltberg urged the Rwandans who are unwilling to return home despite having lost their refugee status to respect international law by applying for the necessary Rwandan documents so as to legalise their stay in host countries, or seek integration in local communities.
Rwanda’s General Directorate of Immigration and Emigration affords nationals to apply for passports online, while the country’s embassies are also on hand to facilitate such Rwandans to acquire documents they need to legalise their stay in the host countries.
In the Republic of Congo, which hosts thousands of now former Rwandan refugees, the Embassy of Rwanda says that only about 25 Rwandans have approached the mission to help them in their bid to legalise their presence in the country after they officially lost their refugee status.
“The information we have is that some of them are afraid and stay at home. Those who own businesses no longer import goods for fear that the police might confiscate them as they are in an illegal situation now,” Athéna Rubayi Indamutsa, the First Councillor at the embassy, told The New Times.
The diplomat said the embassy has since learnt that some Rwandans crossed into the neighbouring DR Congo to look for fake papers, while others moved to Gabon.
Heltberg said there are some countries where Rwandan refugees are well integrated, working as businesses, teachers, to name a few.
It has since emerged that some of the refugees are reluctant to voluntarily return home owing to their alleged role in the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, which claimed the lives of more than a million people.
Up to 84,596 Rwandans have voluntarily returned home since 2009 and subsequently helped to reintegrate in society, the ministry said.