Stop forcing Congolese refugees home, UNHCR urges Rwanda
GENEVA, September 5 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency today protested against the apparent forced repatriation of some 1,500 Congolese refugees by the Rwandan government, calling for an end to the ongoing operation.
Since Saturday (August 31), nearly 1,500 Congolese from refugee camps in northern and western Rwanda have been forcibly returned to rebel-controlled north Kivu in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Four movements - organised jointly by the government of Rwanda and rebel group Congolese Rally for Democracy (RCD-Goma) - have taken place so far. The operation is still continuing.
In a letter to Rwandan President Paul Kagame, High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers wrote, "I must share with you my grave concern over these developments, and request you to bring the ongoing forced repatriation movements to an end."
He added that UNHCR would not be associated with an operation that appeared "neither voluntary nor sustainable", and that reports from the agency's staff, non-governmental organisations and refugees "clearly indicate that these return movements are being carried out under duress".
The forced repatriation violates the principle of non-refoulement, one of the core pillars of refugee protection. "Such practices [forced return] are at variance with the basic principles of voluntary repatriation, whereby refugees must be able to make a free and informed decision to return," Lubbers wrote. "Moreover, such return should not result in a situation of internal displacement due to continuing insecurity in the country of origin."
His letter came within days of a meeting with the government in which the UN refugee agency had urged the authorities to respect the principles of voluntary return.
In the letter, Lubbers said the Congolese refugees - from Gihembe camp in Byumba Prefecture and Kiziba camp in Kibuye Prefecture - were pressured into returning to the Masisi region, an area controlled by the rebel group, RCD-Goma. The agency is concerned that the returnees are being taken to camps for displaced people in north Kivu.
According to refugees in Gihembe camp, Rwandan authorities had warned them that this was their last chance to return home with assistance. Others said they had been threatened with forcible removal should they decline to leave. Local authorities in Byumba reportedly told the refugees to return home before September 15.
Citing security and other concerns, groups of refugees approached UNHCR to intercede with the government to allow them to stay in Rwanda. The refugees are, however, increasingly reluctant to speak to the agency for fear of arrest.
By Tuesday, many refugees in Gihembe camp had begun to dismantle their homes in order to sell the plastic sheeting and timber from their huts before departure. Several families were sleeping outdoors and had gathered at an entrance to the camp awaiting transport to north Kivu. Officials from the Rwandan Ministry of Local Government were present in both camps and were supervising the loading of trucks.
Gihembe and Kiziba camps accommodate a total of 31,923 refugees. The Congolese refugees, also known as the Banyamulenge, are mainly ethnic Tutsis from the Kivu region. They arrived in Rwanda between 1995 and 1996 to escape persecution by Hutu "interahamwe" militias who had fled from Rwanda to the Kivu region in the wake of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda and the take-over by the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RFP).
Rwanda is host to 35,800 refugees, mainly from the DRC.