Q & A: Over 90 per cent refugees will beat Cessation Clause deadline – Mukantabana

It is approximately three months to the application of the cessation clause by countries hosting Rwandan refugees. The  government is optimistic over 90 per cent Rwandans will have repatriated before the deadline. The assurance was given in an exclusive interview The New Times’ Felly Kimenyi had with Seraphine Mukantabana, the Minister of Disaster Management and Refugee Affairs, who is exactly one month into the office. The interview also tackled how the clause will be applied, the state of disaster preparedness and management, among other issues. Below are the excerpts.
Minister Mukantabana during the interview. The New Times / Timothy  Kisambira.
Minister Mukantabana during the interview. The New Times / Timothy Kisambira.

It is approximately three months to the application of the cessation clause by countries hosting Rwandan refugees. The  government is optimistic over 90 per cent Rwandans will have repatriated before the deadline. The assurance was given in an exclusive interview The New Times’ Felly Kimenyi had with Seraphine Mukantabana, the Minister of Disaster Management and Refugee Affairs, who is exactly one month into the office. The interview also tackled how the clause will be applied, the state of disaster preparedness and management, among other issues. Below are the excerpts.

It has been one month since you were appointed as minister. What have you identified as your priorities in the new job?

The ministry has an action plan and I intend to maintain its implementation. At the moment, there is the Cessation Clause on Rwandan refugees whose implementation is due in a couple of months – starting June 30 and I can say this is a key priority.

Undertaking continuous sensitisation to ensure that all refugees repatriate before this cessation clause is invoked is priority and it is not only to ensure they repatriate, but also resettling them.

Another key priority is rallying Rwandans towards preventing disasters and building the necessary capacity to be able to manage the disasters when unavoidable, especially now that we are heading towards a period of heavy rains. We are also working to minimise the effects of disasters in different aspects, be it the on the economy, infrastructure and so forth.

We are continuing dialogues with different stakeholders like UNHCR to ensure that foreign refugees – mainly those from the DRC—that seek asylum in our country are well accommodated.

Speaking of the implementation clause, it is not more than three months from now…do you think all Rwandan refugees would have repatriated ahead of the June 30 deadline?

We are confident this will be possible and we are working hard to make this happen. But what you should know, it does not imply that all refugees will necessarily repatriate. We are aware that some Rwandans out there are living comfortable lives and we wouldn’t want to destabilise them. What we are doing is ensuring that at least 90 per cent of the over 70,000 refugees will have relinquished the refugee status before the cessation clause deadline.

Relinquishing it can be done in different ways; one may choose to return and settle home, or may seek citizenship wherever they are while others may prefer to come back home, get their national identification and other civil rights and return to their respective countries of resident as Rwandan expatriates.

However, based on experience, very few will have the luxury of seeking citizenship in host countries because only a handful can fulfill the conditions required in seeking citizenship. For countries to consider you for citizenship, you need not to be seen as a liability to them, which is why these conditions are normally hard to meet.

Going by your personal experience as a refugee, how can you describe life as a refugee out there?

 Life as a refugee is never good, in all situations, even for those that are well off. Concerning Rwandans in particular, I do not think there are even 10 per cent who can meet all basic needs – food, clothing, healthcare for their families and sending children to school.  The other 90 per cent are living a deplorable life – mainly dependent on the ever insufficient assistance from UNHCR – so generally it is not good.

Another aspect is the general predicament that comes with one being a refugee – even if one is a former head of state – which is the sense of statelessness. I do not think this is an experience anyone may want to go through however much you may be well off.

Going by my personal experience for example, where I lived, even the most illiterate person would bully you about your status and you had nothing to do about it.

Some privileges can simply not be bought with any sum of money.

And this is not unique to refugees in African countries. Even those in Europe face such stigma and this is the reason we are advocating for even those with established businesses that they cannot repatriate home, to come, reclaim their civil liberties and go back if they want.

All I can tell you is when you are living in such conditions, you lack perspective, and you are only thinking of how to pass through the day – you do not make long term plans, as that person who is home.

There is always no tomorrow for a refugee. For example in Africa, where we have most Rwandan refugees, you may have been received by a certain regime and you are always wary about regime change because you don’t know the viewpoint of the next government and because of this, you cannot commit to long-term projects because of this uncertainty.

In the spirit of encouraging Rwandans to repatriate, there was a programme dubbed ‘Come and See Go And Tell, is this a programme that is still relevant?

This programme played an important role at the time, but then what people should know some incentives are not going to always be there. As you well know, we have just a few months to the cessation clause.

The little time we have left is for people to repatriate once and for all instead of coming, then going back to think about returning, there is simply no time and resources for this.

What we are encouraging them is to come, identify the opportunities available in their country and then make a strategic decision based on what they have seen; either bring their investments here for those who have them, or decide to go back and continue their business there, but after processing the required documentation.

The difference here is, during the Come and See go and Tell, a person came as a refugee and returned as a refugee while what we are encouraging now is for them to come, get the papers and basing on their decision strategically, stay or go back.

The facilitation we are therefore giving them is one way – return home and my priority is ensuring they are facilitated to come home and revive contact with their motherland. For those that want to go back, they will meet their own costs.

What is important is that when they choose to return, they will have all the documents and will be protected as Rwandan citizens wherever they will be through our embassies.

The priority now therefore, is to ensure smooth implementation of the cessation clause, making sure that all Rwandans that return are given all facilities needed and also continue dialogue with host countries on how those that will choose to stay there – as Rwandans – are catered for as our people under the reciprocity principle, like we would cater for their citizens who are resident in Rwanda.

Do we still have elements feeding misinformation to Rwandan refugees out there in the spirit of discouraging them to repatriate?

Those people are still there and these are people who do not want to come home because of what they did before they left and are afraid of being caught up by the law. But what I can tell you is these people’s negative influence is not working any more. Many of these refugees have established contact within the country and they get real-time information.

Save for some few countries where these elements have resorted to some kind of terrorism, which they use to hold people in bondage and we have devised means of helping those that wish to come in discretion to do so to avoid these acts of violence.

The problem is with those that will wish to come and go back to remain expatriates in their host countries. We are working on strategies that will ensure their protection from this kind of violence; actually in some countries these elements use the police to arbitrarily arrest such people. These are issues we are aware of and together with our embassies, we are devising measures to protect them.

And again these acts of aggression are not only limited to African countries, even in Europe we have had innocent Rwandans brutalised by these elements.

As we enter into the implementation of the cessation clause, what is going to happen to those who will not have repatriated or acquired nationality in host countries?

The way they will be dealt with will depend on the host country’s legal systems. I don’t know of any sovereign country that would want stateless people on its soil.

As refugees, they have been under the protection of international laws that govern refugees to which almost all countries subscribe but with the refugee status revoked, they will be mere outlaws and I do not know of any well governed country that may want to have a bunch of such people.

The remedy would be forced repatriation or deportation once they are identified as Rwandans and there is a precedent. In Congo Brazzaville, their cessation clause was invoked in June 2012, and there were many Congolese living in Gabon who never took the development seriously mainly basing on the similarities between the two countries speaking the same language and thought they would never be affected.

When time came, they were deported, I think over 300 families were affected.

So I think mainly those in Congo Brazzaville are aware of this, the Congolese having seen their citizens deported, they will not hesitate to do the same. This applies to any country that is governed by the rule of law, you do not want to have such people in large numbers on your territory.

This is the kind of sensitisation we are carrying out – to help these people return when they can actually carry their belongings other than wait for a night raid where they may be thrown on trucks and deported promptly.

Over the past one year, we have witnessed an influx of Congolese refugees in Rwanda. Hasn’t this affected your activities especially now that you are preparing for a large number of Rwandan returnees?

Indeed we have had thousands of Congolese refugees – over 26,000 on top of others that have been here for over a decade – it is indeed a problem because it was never anticipated and had no budget provision. That said, it is an obligation of our government to be accommodative of any person faced with a problem to seek refuge from us.

However, our concern is that the continued skirmishes in the eastern part of DRC need to be immediately addressed. Otherwise we do not have capacity that is elastic in a way that we can absorb a country within ours. This is why Rwanda is actively involved in the peace process of this region to ensure that not only the influx stops but also those that have been here for long are eventually repatriated.

Concerning disaster management and preparedness, how prepared is the country, mainly now that we are, as you said earlier preparing for the rainy season?

We, have for instance, different committees at different levels right from the national level which brings together different ministries and national institutions like the police and the Rwanda Defence Forces. There is also a national technical committee that is in charge of following up on issues concerning disasters on a daily basis.

There are also district and sector disaster committees that work directly with the citizens on matters of sensitisation and also provide primary assistance in cases of any disaster.

Besides the committees, we have in place a disaster communication system that will be sieving all information from these committees and even from ordinary people, concerning disasters and its core mission is to facilitate not only timely intervention, but also help us develop early warning mechanisms to ensure minimal damage.

An example of the early warning mechanisms is the identification of old trees along roads, developing construction guidelines especially in disaster-prone areas, and a study has been done to identify people that can be evacuated from disaster-risk areas.

There is also a plan to cut down old trees along roads which may succumb to windy rains and cause avoidable accidents as we have already seen.

We are also planning to empower the metrology department with state-of-the-art equipment that will be giving us more precise and dependable forecasts that will warn us well in time to make timely intervention where necessary.

There are very many initiatives that have been developed in the area of containing and managing disasters in the country.

What is the position of your ministry on the contentious issue of expropriating people who have been ordered to evacuate from disaster risk zones?

The position is clear; no one should remain resident in an area seen as disaster-risk; we have partnerships with different authorities including the local leaders and we do not operate in a vacuum. The way the evacuation will be carried out has also been developed and specifically in Kigali City, people renting in these areas have to vacate these houses and get appropriate ones.

Those living in their houses and are seen having the capacity to build elsewhere, will go and no compensation will be made because this is in their best interest, and government should not be seen as doing everything for them.

For others who do not have capacity, they will definitely not be thrown out; there are mechanisms to help them get shelter elsewhere, but it is not up to people to sit and determine for themselves whether or not they are vulnerable; there are benchmarks to be followed.

Specifically in Kigali City, there is a plan by city authorities to procure land where there people will be built houses; our ministry has pledged to give them iron sheets and they will also chip in where necessary because collective effort from everyone is crucial.

What I can tell you is that whichever the case, people in these areas will have to evacuate and it is our obligation as government to ensure that people in danger are evacuated with no compromise whatsoever.

Concerning the general statistics on the impact of disasters since this year began; we had minimal incidences in various districts that were minimal but the major disaster that so far has been most dangerous is the rain that struck towards the end of February, in which six people died and over 900 houses destroyed. All the affected people have so far been assisted at different ways and assistance was not only provided by the ministry, but also other authorities right from the grassroots.

Another important development is that now disaster management has been mainstreamed into budgets of districts and sectors and this will play an important role in providing immediate assistance to the affected people.  

In conclusion, what message do you have for Rwandans concerning the topics discussed in this interview?

My message concerning refugees is that time is not really on their side; they need to make their decision as soon as possible for either those with intentions to repatriate or those who want to go back because it is all in their interest.

You never know what will happen on the day they will lose the status; what if their property is vandalized by nationals in host countries? It is always good to be on the right side of the law and this also concerns Rwandans in the country because it is their duty to sensitise their relatives and friends to return to motherland.

There are those in the country who may have taken advantage of the refugees’ absence and abused their property, hence resorting to discouraging them from repatriating. To these, I think they are hurting them more by condemning them to statelessness on top of taking their property. They need to come clean with them.

For those refugees who need our help in any way, we are here to help; those that live in fear that they were sentenced in absentia by Gacaca courts, they are free to seek retrial because its provided for in our laws.

Personally even if someone participated in the Genocide, I would rather they came and serve the sentence rather than condemning myself and my family to an eternal life on the run. I know of many who have been roaming in forests for almost two decades now, is this something you can compare with a prison where you are fed and ensure your family is safe?

So it is better to serve the sentence alone than condemning your entire family to a deplorable life.

For those with misguided illusions that they would return home through fighting, those will remain illusions because there is no cause and Rwandans are more focused on development than anything else. 

Concerning disasters, there is need for cooperation from everyone especially during the evacuation of those in disaster risk zones because this is a government that is working to be very accountable to all people and doing everything in their interest.

People should be flexible and bear in mind that these are effects of climate change to which we all have to adapt and it is in the interest of everyone because government is not out to distabilise anyone.

For the Congolese refugees, my call is to the international community, asking them to handle the issue with the seriousness it deserves to ensure the pacification of this region to enable us use the resources we spend on dealing with effects of a war we did not cause. The resources can be reverted to lift Rwandans out of poverty.

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