Extract from "The State of the World's Refugees 1995 - In Search of Solutions" "Changing approaches to the refugee problem", Chapter 1, Box 1.3 (p. 32-33)

Teaching Tools, 17 September 2006

© UNHCR
Cover of 'The State of the World's Refugees 1995 – In Search of Solutions'

published by Oxford
University Press © 1995 UNHCR

Rwanda: causes and consequences of the refugee crisis

Forced migrations within and across national borders are one of the most visible consequences of political persecution and armed conflict. But as the recent crisis in Rwanda has demonstrated, refugee problems that are left unresolved can also become the cause of further instability, violence and population displacements.

Refugee repatriation has been a dominant issue in Rwandese politics for the past 30 years. By the time the country gained independence in 1962, 120,000 people, primarily from the minority Tutsi population, had already taken refuge in neighbouring states, escaping the violence which accompanied the progressive seizure of power by the majority Hutu community. Over the next two decades, the exiles made repeated efforts to return to Rwanda by the force of arms, each of which provoked renewed violence, reprisals and refugee outflows. By the end of the 1980s, some 480,000 Rwandese around seven per cent of the total population and half of the Tutsi community had become refugees, primarily in Burundi (280,000), Uganda (80,000), Zaire (80,000) and Tanzania (30,000).

This situation took a decisive turn in October 1990, when the Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF), a movement composed mainly of Tutsi exiles, attacked north-east Rwanda from Uganda, where they had helped Yuweri Museveni's National Resistance Army to come to power four years earlier. After taking charge in Uganda, President Museveni had reminded his Rwandese counterpart of the need to find a solution to the refugee problem. But the Hutu-led government claimed that there was so little land available in Rwanda that repatriation was out of the question.

Right to return

After the outbreak of the war in 1990, the prospects for a settlement of the refugee problem appeared to improve. As a result of internal and external pressures, the Rwandese government was obliged to end 16 years of one-party rule. A transitional administration was created, which in 1993 recognized the refugees' right to return and signed a peace agreement with the RPF. But the agreement was rejected by radical elements in both the government and rebel movement, and Rwanda became embroiled in an increasingly disruptive civil war, which created up to a million internally displaced people.

The country was plunged further into crisis on 6 April 1994, when presidents Juvenal Habyarimana of Rwanda and Cyprien Ntaryamira of Burundi were killed in a plane crash. Ironically, the two leaders were returning from a peace conference in the Tanzanian capital of Dar-es-Salaam, which had been convened to discuss the implementation of a power-sharing plan in both countries.

While the cause of the plane crash remains unknown, it is clear that detailed preparations had already been made in Rwanda for the massacre of the Tutsi population and moderate Hutus. In attacks of indescribable brutality, committed by ordinary men and women as well as Hutu militia, at least 500,000 people are believed to have been killed. Some commentators put the figure much higher.

The killings were accompanied and followed by massive population displacements. On 28 and 29 April alone, as the RPF launched a new offensive against government forces, some 250,000 Rwandese flooded into Tanzania. And even this appeared modest in comparison with the movement which was to take place in mid-July 1994, when in the space of a few days, approximately 800,000 people (most of them Hutus), fled into Zaire, fearing reprisals by the advancing forces of the RPF.

But this was not simply a refugee movement. Assiduously encouraged by the retreating government, the exodus from Rwanda was in effect a calculated evacuation of the Hutu population. With a large proportion of the Tutsis already massacred, the victorious RPF was to be left in control of a state with a severely depleted population, as well as a hostile body of exiles, including the defeated army and militia, massed on the country's borders. Underlining the strategic nature of the movement, members of the ousted administration quickly asserted control over the refugee camps and established a dominant role in the distribution of aid.

Threat of violence

While they struggled to cope with the human consequences of the influx into Tanzania and Zaire, relief agency personnel also had to contend with the militant Hutus who had planned and executed the massacres, and who were now using threats of violence to prevent any refugees from returning to Rwanda. At the end of 1994, a proposal to curtail the violence by deploying a UN peacekeeping force in the refugee camps of Zaire was rejected by the UN Security Council. In February 1995, however, the government of Zaire agreed to send an elite force of 1,500 men to the settlement areas. UNHCR subsequently established a group of police and military personnel from the western states to work alongside the Zairian security force, an unprecedented arrangement in the organization's history.

Despite a general improvement in camp security and living conditions, by mid-1995 there was little immediate prospect of a solution to the Rwandese refugee problem. At a conference held in February 1995, the countries of Central Africa and the major donor states agreed on the need to encourage repatriation by a package of confidence-building measures within Rwanda, including the restoration of the rule of law and the rehabilitation of the country's shattered economy.

The implementation of this plan, however, has been obstructed by a variety of factors: continued pressure on the refugees to remain outside of their homeland; the slow rate at which a promised US$600 million in rehabilitation assistance has become available; disputes over property ownership, linked to the long-awaited return of the Tutsi exiles from Uganda; persistent reports of arbitrary arrests in Rwanda, leading to grossly overcrowded prisons; and the forcible closure of camps for internally displaced people in south-west Rwanda.

In April 1995, hundreds of people were killed when government troops opened fire at a camp for displaced people in Kibeho, an incident which had a serious impact on the prospects for a resolution of the refugee problem. At the end of 1994, UNHCR had started to provide transport and other assistance to the small number of refugees who wished to return to Rwanda. By February 1995, as many as 800 Rwandese were going back every day. But after the Kibeho killings, the numbers dropped to nothing.

Progress on the political front has also proved very slow. The new leaders in Kigali have stated that reconciliation with the former government is possible, but only if the individuals responsible for the genocide are punished for their crimes. Members of the former administration say that they will return to their homeland, but only if they are allowed a share of power. According to many reports, in mid-1995 the soldiers and militia forces who had withdrawn to Zaire were continuing to receive military training and supplies, and to conduct low-intensity operations in the border areas of Rwanda. With images of mass murders still fresh in the minds of the Rwandese people, peace is unlikely to come quickly or easily.

The Rwandese refugee population (Map C)