By Rosebell Kagumire & Maya Prabhu
Rwandan refugees forced back across the border
The sprawling Nakivale Refugee Settlement in south-western Uganda is home to over 50,000 asylum-seekers and refugees. At one time it represented a testament to Uganda’s reputation as one of the most refugee-friendly countries in Africa.
But recent events at Nakivale and Kyaka camps threaten to erode this reputation. On July 14 Ugandan police, working in tandem with Rwandan authorities, used false information to round up and forcibly deport approximately 2,000 Rwandese refugees.
The operation, which was decried by the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and human rights organizations, left two refugees dead and another 26 injured, when they attempted to leap from the trucks hauling them across the border to Rwanda.
On Wednesday morning an unusually large Ugandan police contingent flanked by Rwandese officers surrounded the two camps and lured refugees to the assembly points with false promises of food and information on appeals processes. Warning shots were fired when the refugees refused to co-operate with the police trying to load them onto Rwanda-bound trucks.
The 2,000 refugees are currently being held in transit centres on the Rwandan side of the border. The 26 injured remain in Uganda at health clinics around Nakivale.
The two raids are not isolated incidents. Over the last three years the Rwandan government has intensified efforts to have Rwandan refugees in neighbouring countries, including Uganda and Tanzania, repatriated.
On October 3, 2007, the first major forced repatriation operation was launched when 3000 Rwandan refugees were returned to their country of citizenship. The operation was carried out by police and armed personnel who stormed refugee huts at 2:00 am under the observation of UN refugee agency.
According to the Legal Officer at the Refugee Law Project, Salima Namusobya, such operations are a one off and they are coordinated between the governments of Rwanda and Uganda.
Over the years, UNHCR has held numerous meetings with Ugandan and Rwandan authorities on the repatriation of Rwandan refugees. Although the meetings have been geared towards the promotion of voluntary repatriation, the two governments have repeatedly used force to take back refugees.
In Rwanda the refugees are held at transit centres, but once they are released from these temporary holding areas many of them will find their way back to Uganda.
However, upon return, returning refugees are far less likely to make themselves known to the Ugandan government or to UNHCR, instead quietly disappearing into the villages surrounding the camps in south-western Uganda.
â€œMost of the refugees that they took back in 2007 have come back,â€ says Nabusobya. â€œMany Rwandans who are taken by force come back and register as Congolese refugees so this doesnâ€™t help any of the countries involved.â€
Two months ago a bilateral agreement was struck between representatives of the Ugandan and Rwandese governments facilitating the deportation of Rwandese whose requests for asylum had been rejected.
But Kai Nielsen, UNHCR country representative for Uganda, is concerned that among those deported on 14 July were people whose asylum claims had not yet been conclusively rejected. â€œIt was badly handled,â€ he said. Witness testimony from family members at the Ugandan refugee settlements indicate that a number of individuals who had already been granted refugee status, as well as people still involved in the appeal process, were among those forced across the border.
Nielsen further stated that while it is unusual for Rwandan police to be present on Ugandan soil, it would not have struck him as particularly strange if the â€œwhole thing had been done more humanely.â€
The Kigali government has held the position for some time that there is no longer any need for Rwandaâ€™s citizens to claim refugee status anywhere else in the world. Uganda, while still accepting asylum-claims, has rejected 98 per cent of asylum applications from Rwandan citizens in the last year.
Many Rwandan refugees came to Uganda fleeing the 1994 genocide, while others have fled Rwanda recently for political reasons.
The Refugee Law Project has found that most Rwandan refugees are unwilling to go back because of fear of persecution through the Gacaca court system.
â€œThese refugees have gone back and have faced persecution, others have problems with property restitution,â€ said Namusobya. â€œWe have reports from those who return saying people in government now occupy their land and refugee agencies in Rwanda are not doing enough to integrate those that are taken back.â€
Human Rights Watch has indicated that although the Rwandan government has made notable progress in reforming its judicial system since 2004, there is little assurance for free and fair trials. There have also been rights violation concerns in Rwanda, including increased insecurity and political repression in the period leading up to presidential elections on August 9.
Nielsen questions Ugandaâ€™s cooperation in the forced repatriation.Â â€œI personally donâ€™t see the reason for being so insistent on returning these people to Rwanda,â€ he said. â€œI donâ€™t think that they were a security threat or a financial burden to Uganda.â€
The Minister for Disaster preparedness Tarsis Kabwegye denies that refugees are being forced home. He claimed those taken back were asylum seekers and said that the Rwanda government has a right to come and pick up â€œtheir stranded citizens.â€
But some of these refugees, according to Namusobya, should qualify for Ugandan citizenship. â€œMany refugees have lived in the country for more than 20 years and the constitution accepts them and for most Rwandese they even have a local language knowledge addition.â€
While the Uganda Refugees Act of 2006 recognizes that naturalisation applies to refugees, the immigration authorities in Uganda have continued to block refugees from acquiring citizenship.
Namusobya said the Refugee Law Project intends to petition the constitutional court to allow refugees who have lived in Uganda for more than 20 years to be allowed citizenship. Most of these Rwandans have lost touch with their country of origin; forcing them back â€˜homeâ€™ cannot be the ultimate solution.
October 2007 Uganda deported 3,000 Rwandans
It was a Wednesday night Ugandan authorities raided Kyaka II and Nakivale refugee settlements, violently driving out thousands of Rwandan nationals.
A witness told reporters that the refugees were loaded onto four Fuso trucks and forcibly expelled late at night.
There were protests against the violation of the UN principle of nonrefoulemnt (involuntary return of people to a country they fled). At the time UNHCR agreed with the governments of Rwanda and Ugandaâ€™s claims that return had been â€œvoluntary.â€
There were reported cases of refugees who tried to commit suicide by taking a cattle dip acaricide in trying to resist the repatriation. Refugees, some older than 50 years, had been forced to return to Rwanda.
Â Newspaper reports at the time revealed thatÂ the affected communitiesÂ were mainly Rwandans of Hutu origin who had first sought refugee status in Tanzania but were expelled in 2003.
Most Rwandan refugees moved into Uganda after Tanzania began to aggressively return them to Rwanda. Over 5,000 moved to Uganda in 2003.