Voluntary" Repatriation for Rwandan Refugees?
Today, Rwanda's The New Times reported that Rwandan refugees remaining in Uganda since the 1994 genocide are reluctant to repatriate to Rwanda, opining, "There is no justifiable reason as to why Rwandan citizens should stay in Uganda as refugees." It seems like the Ugandan government agrees; in order to "encourage" them to repatriate, Uganda has issued a farming ban for Rwandan refugees in the Nakivale camp where they have made their home for 16 years.
I would like to remind The New Times, the Republic of Rwanda, and the Republic of Uganda that repatriation of refugees, under international law, is voluntary and thus cannot be forcibly coerced.
A bit of background: The atrocities committed in the 1994 Genocide (whose 16 year anniversary is this month) were largely perpetrated against the Tutsi minority and Hutu moderates at the hands of Hutu citizens, guided by an extensive government campaign of extermination. These attacks killed over 800,000 people and forced survivors into neighboring countries where they built a resistance movement called the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). The RPF then launched a counter-attack in Rwanda, killing thousands of Hutu citizens and causing even more to flee for their own lives. By June of 1994, approximately two million Rwandan refugees were living in exile and the country's streets were literally soaked with blood.
Many refugees sought protection in Uganda and in 2004, ten years after the genocide, a voluntary repatriation campaign was launched for the remaining 60,000 Rwandan refugees (primarily Hutu) in Uganda to return home. While over 40,000 Rwandan refugees have chosen to repatriate from Uganda and rebuild their lives in their former home, it has heretofore been their choice to do so.
Rwanda has pioneered some of history's most successful community-based truth and reconciliation commissions in order to heal its deep wounds, help citizens forgive one another for past atrocities, and bring the country back together. It has also proven safe for many refugees to return home and rebuild their lives in their homelands. Yet as of June 2009, 17,000 Rwandan refugees remained in Uganda. Quite frankly, New Times, I can think of many "justifiable reasons" that a Rwandan refugee of the 2004 genocide would not want to return home.
First of all, everyday citizens were complicit in the genocide's atrocities either by allowing them to occur or, in many cases and as directed by government officials, committing acts of murder themselves. The trauma, individual and collective, of having witnessed and/or committed such acts cannot be underestimated and indeed could be triggered by a return home.
Second, refugees fear what will happen to them should they come in contact with genocide victims and/or their families. (I know this because I interviewed dozens of Rwandan refugees in Uganda at the onset of the 2004 repatriation campaign.) Will they be forgiven or persecuted? Will they be able to live their lives without fear of retaliation?
Third, there are logistical concerns: Where will they live? What will they do for work? Rwandan refugees have spent over a decade establishing themselves in Uganda. Their children have learned English in Ugandan schools (rather than French, the national language of Rwanda) and families have set roots in their new homes. Is it not understandable that at least some of these refugees, enjoying the peace and protection of Uganda, would not want to uproot themselves yet again?
Finally, there's the distrust of the Rwandan government that is controlled, still, by the leaders of the RPF. While the government provides promising answers to the aforementioned concerns, they are not always trusted. This is the same government, by the way, that forcibly returned 504 Burundian refugeees in 2009.
Please, Rwanda and Uganda, let's respect international law and the choice of these refugees to stay where they are. Why force people "home" when they have legitimate fears of return?
Photo Credit: schacon