Exile without End? The Struggle to Belong in Africa’s Great Lakes Region

by Lucy Hovil

Being a refugee in the Great Lakes region is a dangerous occupation. Many are living in a protracted state of exile, unable to return to their ‘home’ countries, yet unable to acquire citizenship in their host countries. This indefinite state of exile, experienced by many in the region, will only end when belonging at a local and national level becomes less exclusive and when all actors recognise that a political rather than humanitarian solution is needed.

While the logic of repatriation makes sense, and many refugees decide to return at the first sign of increased stability, there are two fundamental problems with this approach. First, the assumption that repatriation is appropriate for all refugees disregards individual circumstances that may make return inadvisable or even dangerous. Second, governments and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) are operationalizing repatriation as a primarily humanitarian rather than political process, with inadequate recognition of the need to promote the reinforcement (or creation) of citizenship bonds that resolve the conditions that led to their exile.

The political situation in the region often exacerbates these problems. For example, the Rwandan government asserts that Rwandans do not have a legitimate reason to claim asylum outside the country because Rwanda is now a fully democratic state that protects all of its citizens. This pressures potentially vulnerable individuals to return. In international law, the concept of “cessation”—the mechanism by which refugee status is formally withdrawn—has been used by the government of Rwanda as a threat rather than a means of generating protection, leaving tens of thousands of refugees in a state of constant uncertainty. The agreements between the government of Rwanda, host governments, and the UNHCR on cessation, along with xenophobic public statements made by host governments, have created an increasingly unsettling environment for Rwandans who remain in exile.

At the same time, host countries, with their own political agendas, are also players in the repatriation game. The recent signing of a tripartite agreement on the repatriation of Somali refugees between the governments of Kenya and Somalia and the UNHCR came as little surprise to many, particularly after the Westgate bombing by suspected Al-Shabaab militants. For sure, Kenya has paid a heavy price for its regional position in the struggle against Islamic militants, and for years Kenya has used threats to security as a justification for border closures and forcing refugees into camps. Yet prior to Westgate, judicial structures and an active civil society in Kenya had made some progress in pushing a refugee protection agenda despite the government’s political manoeuvring.

For example, in July 2013, Kenya’s High Court affirmed the right to freedom of movement and the right of refugees to live in urban areas thus putting the right to dignity for refugees back at the heart of refugee policy. Following Westgate, however, the pressure on Somalis to either move to the camps in Kenya or to return—in particular through increased xenophobic statements in the press—has made those who remain in urban areas more vulnerable, and threatens to overcrowd camps that are already over capacity. While many Somali refugees might choose to return to Somalia, the fact that repatriation is being pushed without offering workable alternatives such as naturalization is leading to a growing crisis.

The deep-rooted failure of citizenship policies in the region to accommodate refugees’ needs and concerns has left hundreds of thousands of individuals effectively stateless. As a first step, governments should facilitate access to national citizenship to long-staying refugees who want it. Although few national governments have done so, some progress has been made at the regional level. For example, under the evolving political union, citizens of Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, South Sudan, and Uganda are now being invited to become “East African citizens” and to live and work across borders

Though not a silver bullet, this could serve as a basis for creating regional forms of belonging and mechanisms that create durable peace. In addition, there is a need for more creative and flexible approaches to belonging that would allow people alternative means to securing safety for themselves and their families. For example, it might offer Rwandan refugees facing cessation in the region the opportunity to remain and work in the host country without the politically sensitive label of “refugee.” Resolving the protracted exile that many in the region currently face will not only benefit those who remain excluded from national belonging, but will lead to a far stronger polity that is less likely to be affected by renewed conflict.

About the Author

Dr. Lucy Hovil is the Senior Researcher at the International Refugee Rights Initiative. Previously she founded and ran the Research and Advocacy department of the Refugee Law Project, Faculty of Law, Makerere University, Uganda. She has a PhD from the School of Oriental and African Studies, London University, and is the Managing Editor of the International Journal of Transitional Justice (OUP).

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