Rwandan refugees who fled Rwanda between 1959 and 1998 will lose their refugee status and associated legal protection on June 30, 2013, when the UNHCR-invoked Cessation Clause comes into effect. The Cessation Clause, contained in Article 1C of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, defines the situations in which granted refugee status ends. This clause, as it applies to Rwandan refugees, was originally proposed to UNHCR by the Government of Rwanda in 2002. It requires refugees who fled Rwanda between 1959 and 1998 to choose one of three courses of action: (1) voluntarily return to Rwanda, (2) apply for citizenship to stay in the host country, or (3) apply for an extension of their refugee status based on certain exemption criteria.
Despite the rhetoric, Rwandans refugees will only be given one choice: to return to the country from which they fled. Many African countries lack the infrastructure to process extension requests, in particular the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda, which are the two largest host countries of Rwandan refugees. Even UNHCR admits that the likelihood of naturalization into host countries is low and recognizes that many governments are “reluctant to commit to local integration options absent clear progress with regard to voluntary repatriation.”
Countries such as Uganda want Rwandan refugees out and will resort to forcible repatriation. Uganda has already taken action when, in 2011, it forced Rwandans out of refugee camps and into trucks at gunpoint. According to Uganda’s Refugee Desk Office, refugees who lose their status after implementation of the Cessation Clause but remain in Uganda will be considered illegal immigrants under Article 52 of the Ugandan Citizenship and Immigration Control Act (1999) and, thus, are vulnerable to deportation. Without the legal protection that comes with refugee status, many refugees will be forcibly separated from their homes, non-Rwandan spouses, and communities.
Once the Cessation Clause is implemented, refugees who return to Rwanda will likely face persecution. According to the Government of Rwanda, new laws have been passed which will grant original owners the rights to their land. However, if the past is any indication, refugees who claim these rights will face hostility and resistance from established citizens who have lived on their land for decades. Returnees may also face legal persecution. Rwanda’s Ministry of Disaster Management and Refugee Affairs confirms that returnees charged with crime in absentia must face their verdicts and sentences upon return. In a country that, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), is run by “an authoritarian government that is unwilling to countenance criticism or open debate,” such charges may result in unjust prosecution.
Rwandan refugees should not be forced to return to Rwanda. UNHCR Executive Committee Conclusions on the Cessation of Status (1992) state that the Cessation Clause should not be implemented until the recipient country has undergone “fundamental, stable, and durable changes” needed to remove all well-founded fear of refugee persecution. As judged by recent reports by CSIS, Reporters Without Borders, and Amnesty International, as well as from personal statements by Rwandan refugees, such structural changes have not yet taken place.
As it stands now, the Cessation Clause undermines refugee protection, overrides refugee human rights, and fails to create a sustainable solution. Furthermore, invocation of the Cessation Clause discredits UNHCR, whose core mandate is to protect refugees. UNHCR’s decision to implement the Clause will place thousands of Rwandan refugees in danger, violate its mandate, and tarnish its reputation.
Rwandans should not be forced to return to a country where they will live in fear. In the words of one Rwandan refugee: “Do you think I need to consult with someone else about going home? If I could go home, I would not even be here talking to you. I would be long gone.” To protect Rwandan refugees from abuse and injustice, UNHCR should remove its support of the Cessation Clause, encourage each host country to conduct an assessment of Rwanda’s political and social structures before making policy choices, and assist these host countries in creating appropriate national policy procedures. UNHCR should also monitor host government operations to ensure refugee rights are respected during policy implementation, as well as help inform and guide refugees about their options. This new policy position will effectively and appropriately address the existing refugee situation in each host country, provide the highest possible welfare for refugees, and ensure that UNHCR remains a credible international organization that actively protects refugees while working toward sustainable solutions.