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.

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