Ministerial meeting reviews timeline for solving Rwandan refugee situation

Briefing Notes, 19 April 2013

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Adrian Edwards to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 19 April 2013, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

African countries hosting large numbers of Rwandan refugees and Rwanda itself have reiterated their commitment to resolving the protracted Rwandan refugee situation in line with a Comprehensive Strategy that was announced by UNHCR in October 2009.

At a Ministerial meeting in Pretoria, delegations from Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, the Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, South Africa, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe reviewed progress in promoting the voluntary repatriation and reintegration of Rwandan refugees. Included in the discussion was extending the possibility of local integration or alternative legal status in the country of asylum, the key components of the Comprehensive Strategy.

The Strategy also provides for the cessation of refugee status for Rwandan refugees remaining in exile, and who fled their country before 31 December 1998.

The meeting was co-chaired by UNHCR's Africa Bureau Director, George Okoth-Obbo and Volker Türk, the refugee agency's Director of International Protection.

The first Ministerial meeting on the Strategy, in Geneva on 9 December 2011, had agreed with a recommendation for States to consider giving effect to the so-called cessation clauses of refugee status as of 30 June 2013. Cessation clauses are built into the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1969 Organization of African Unity Refugee Convention. They provide for refugee status to end once fundamental and durable changes have taken place in the country of origin and the circumstances that led to flight no longer exist.

The 1994 Rwanda genocide and its aftermath and armed clashes in northwestern Rwanda in 1997 and 1998 the last time the country experienced generalized violence produced more than 3.5 million Rwandan refugees.

Most have since returned to Rwanda, including recently, 12,000 mainly from Democratic Republic of Congo. An estimated 100,000 Rwandan refugees remain in exile.

Highlighting the different progress and the challenges which remain, Governments at the meeting unanimously reconfirmed their commitment to resolving this protracted refugee situation through, principally, stepping up efforts to promote repatriation which thus far has remained very limited. They also agreed to pursue feasible local integration opportunities, including facilitating for the refugees to attain alternative status in their countries of asylum including citizenship through naturalization.

With cessation of refugee status the issue that attracted most debate it became clear during the meeting that not all states were ready to invoke a general application of the cessation clauses by 30 June 2013 in line with the strategy recommendation.

Some States have been implementing steps towards applying the cessation clauses by end June or indicated that they are in a position to do so, and that they will continue to work towards that goal assuming necessary conditions are met.

Others underscored that for various legal, access, logistical, practical or other considerations, they are not in a position to apply the cessation clauses by the end of June, or will in any case not do so.

Others specified that for the time being they will concentrate on taking forward other components of the strategy, namely voluntary repatriation and local integration.

Whether in those cases in which one or more States move ahead with the invocation of the cessation clauses or continue to consider applying them, it is clear that this will be done on a "case by case" basis or by "differentiated" approach.

All States confirmed that before and after that time, they will continue to work to help those who want to repatriate. Those who opt to repatriate but can legally remain in their current countries of asylum through alternative legal status including naturalization, will also be helped.

Rwanda's delegation outlined a number of steps it has taken and will continue to implement to support the respective solutions. These include issuing national passports for Rwandans who opt to stay in their current host countries.

For the past five years, UNHCR has been working to solve protracted refugee situations in Africa. Cessation of refugee status for Sierra Leonean refugees took place in 2008 and for Angolan and Liberian refugees on 30 June last year.

For further information on this topic, please contact:

  • In Nairobi (Regional), Kitty McKinsey on mobile +254 735 337 608
  • In Pretoria (Regional) Tina Ghelli on mobile +27 827 70 41 89
  • In Pretoria (on mission), Fatoumata Lejeune-Kaba on mobile +41 79 249 34 83



UNHCR country pages

Keeping Busy in Rwanda's Kiziba Camp

Rwanda's Kiziba Camp was opened in December 1996, after the start of civil war in neighbouring Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The facility was constructed to help cope with the influx of tens of thousands of Congolese refugees at that time. Some of the refugees have since returned to their homes in eastern DRC, but about 16,000 remain at the remote hilltop camp located in the Western province of Rwanda. Fresh violence last year in DRC's North Kivu province did not affect the camp because new arrivals were accommodated in the reopened Kigeme Camp in Rwanda's Southern province. Most of the refugees in Kiziba have said they do not want to return, but the prospects of local integration is limited by factors such as a lack of land and limited access to employment. In the meantime, people try to lead as normal a life as possible, learning new skills and running small businesses to help them become self-sufficient. For the youth, access to sports and education is very important to ensure that they do not become sidetracked by negative influences as well as to keep up their spirits and hopes for the future.

Keeping Busy in Rwanda's Kiziba Camp

The suffering and strength of displaced Congolese women

During the ceaseless cycle of violence in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, it is the vulnerable who suffer the most, especially women and children. The issue of widespread sexual and gender-based violence is a major concern for UNHCR, but it never goes away. The refugee agency has received dozens of reports of rape and assault of women during the latest wave of fighting between government forces and rebel troops as well as militia groups in North and South Kivu provinces. It is an area where rape is used as a weapon of war.

The fear of sexual and physical violence forces thousands of women to seek refuge away from their homes or across the border in countries such as Rwanda and Uganda. Often their menfolk remain behind and women become the heads of household, looking after young children. They are the bedrock of society, yet they are often the first to suffer when instability comes to their home areas.

The following images were taken recently in Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda and Uganda by Frédèric Noy. They depict Congolese women who have fled their homes, leaving almost everything behind, and sought shelter in a place they hope will be better than where they came from. In many ways they have become inured to hardship, but so many of them continue to retain hope for themselves and their children. And that is an inspiration to those who help them.

The suffering and strength of displaced Congolese women

Kigeme: A home carved from the hills for Congolese refugees

The Kigeme refugee camp in Rwanda's Southern province was reopened in June 2012 after thousands of Congolese civilians started fleeing across the border when fighting erupted in late April between Democratic Republic of the Congo government forces and fighters of the rebel M23 movement. Built on terraced hills, it currently houses more than 14,000 refugees but was not significantly affected by the latest fighting in eastern Congo, which saw the M23 capture the North Kivu provincial capital, Goma, before withdrawing. While many of the adults long for lasting peace in their home region, the younger refugees are determined to resume their education. Hundreds enrolled in special classes to help them prepare for the Rwandan curriculum in local primary and secondary schools, including learning different languages. In a camp where more than 60 per cent of the population are aged under 18 years, the catch-up classes help traumatized children to move forward, learn and make friends.

Kigeme: A home carved from the hills for Congolese refugees

Rwanda: Flight from BurundiPlay video

Rwanda: Flight from Burundi

In recent weeks, the number of Burundian refugees crossing into Rwanda has increased significantly. According to the Government of Rwanda, since the beginning of April, 25,004 Burundians, mostly women and children, have fled to Rwanda. Many said they had experienced intimidation and threats of violence linked to the upcoming elections.