Research associate LAM-Les Afriques dans le Monde
In April 2013, a Ministerial Meeting on the Comprehensive Solutions Strategy for Rwandan Refugees was held in Pretoria, South Africa, in order to « bring proper closure to the situation of Rwandan refugees (…) and to secure appropriate durable solutions for them ». Several follow-up meetings aimed at implementing concrete procedures in that regard. In September 2016, a meeting between the UNHCR, delegations from African countries hosting Rwandan refugees and the African Union led to an agreement to conclude the process and implement the cessation clause regarding refugee status held by Rwandans. Rwandan refugees who arrived in Uganda between 1959 and 31st December 1998 are affected by the cessation of their refugee status that was supposed to take place on the 31st December 2017. The other ones who arrived later are theoretically not concerned by it but this has created a huge concern among the Rwandan refugees with regards to the consequences this cessation clause can have on their own situation.
A hopeless situation
The history of Rwandans seeking refuge in Uganda dates back to several decades. In 1959-60, and then again in 1963-63 and 1972-73, Tutsis flew in order to escape persecution. The oldest Rwandan settlement in Uganda, Nakivale, was established in 1960. In the aftermath of the genocide, between 1994 and 1998, Rwandans arrived massively in Uganda and in the neighboring countries to seek asylum. Since then, Rwandans have continuously arrived and asked for asylum in Uganda, due to the constant political tensions in Rwanda. People flee the country in greater numbers before the elections, especially the ones belonging to groups that are specifically at high risk: journalists, human rights activists, or civil society activists. In the meanwhile, relations between Uganda and Rwanda have been going through ups and downs. Rwandans have been considered thorough the years as scapegoats by the Ugandan government, creating strong bitterness among the Ugandan population.
For the people concerned by the cessation clause, four different solutions have been proposed: voluntary repatriation, local integration, refugee status exemption for the ones who are still in need of international protection, and cessation of refugee status. Reality is de facto limited to two solutions: cessation clause for refugees who have obtained their status between 1959 and 31st of December, 2017, or refugee status exemption, for the ones who can prove that they are still at risk in case of return to Rwanda. To the ones concerned by the cessation clause, there are indeed few solutions available once they are not anymore under protection of UNHCR. They can either go back to Rwanda, which is not considered as a safe place by many Rwandan refugees or asylum seekers, or stay in Uganda, at the risk of being considered of alien.
For most of the Rwandans we spoke with, repatriation is not seen as a realistic solution. The reasons that have led to their flight are still not solved, starting with land issues which first feed resentment, bitterness and even violence among the population, and second prevent people to access their main subsistance means. In the aftermath of the genocide, land has been reallocated and internally displaced people, or people coming back to their origin village, have cultivated land that was belonging to people who flew the genocide. Once these latter ones came back, they had difficulties to prove the rightness of their claim regarding land belonging. Moreover, land issues are feeding disputes and using supposed responsibilities during genocide in order to grab land is common.
The second choice is a tricky one, it is indeed difficult to obtain Ugandan citizenship. The meeting leading to the decision of implementing the cessation clause was supposed to « proactively identify solutions ». The Ugandan government proposed to « provide an alternative legal status to those refugees choosing to locally integrate ». There is no such solution available for the Rwandan refugees who would like to stay in Uganda. They cannot access the right to obtain citizenship which would be the legal status to obtain once their refugee status is disclosed. Uganda is known to be « the best place to be a refugee ». Citizenship laws theoretically enable persons having been on the Ugandan soil for more than ten years to ask for citizenship. Persons having the refugee status are a special case as they are not allowed to become Ugandan citizen, neither by registration nor by naturalization. This is not only a denying of their rights as refugees, it also constitutes a clear discrimination as they do not access the same rights than foreigners living in Uganda. Together with the Ugandan government, UNHCR has to be sure that it is possible for the Rwandan refugees who decide to stay. This starts by the obtention of legal papers allowing full rights in Uganda and accessing full citizenship. Resettlement, often presented as an alternative solution by the signatories of the agreement, is not available to Rwandan refugees because their country of origin is not at war anymore. Nevertheless, the lack of security in Uganda for Rwandans should be taken seriously, and in that respect, resettlement should be enforced as a durable solution for them.
A thread extending to the whole Rwandan refugee community
Rwanda has been widely presented these last years as a success story regarding the way it has been able to pick itself up. It is considered as a booming economy, praised for its Parliament with the highest world percentage of women MP and at the spearhead of an ecological-oriented development. Safety is supposed to be secured, streets cleanness are highly spoken by the visitor, exemplified by the ban on plastic bags. Nevertheless, there are constantly important numbers of refugees fleeing the country, with peaks when presidential elections approach, linked with the repressive nature of the Rwandan State. All the refugees we met consider that Rwanda is not a safe place for them to return. Even if not concerned directly by the cessation clause, they all share fears regarding its implementation and the consequences it bears on their own lives, and consider that it misrepresents the political situation of Rwanda.
This process which was supposed to concern only Rwandan refugees who arrived in Uganda between 1959 and 31st December 1998 has eventually tremendous consequences on the whole community. Rwandans kept arriving after this date, most of them being human rights activists, journalists or civil society members. They are afraid that, sooner or later, the cessation clause will concern them: “Petit à petit, ils viendront à nous”, as one of the refugees we spoke with underlined. They all feel that Rwanda does not offer security conditions for them to go back, and will not in a near future. Moreover, the lack of security they meet in Uganda is of great concern to them. They do not feel protected here, and the different security issues they meet in Uganda, be it the fact of Ugandans or Rwandan fellows, are hardly reported to the Ugandan police. They feel discriminated, both because of the political history between the two countries, and despite the widely-spread motto that “a refugee has the same right than an Ugandan”, and this feeling is reinforced by the lack of durable solutions that are offered to them. The implementation of the cessation clause is thus increasing their insecurity, both on the psychological and on the material levels, even if they are not directly concerned. With no durable solution, thinking with a long term perspective on future is impossible and this constant feeling of instability is hardly bearable for them and is now strengthened by the fear that the cessation clause will be extended to them in a near future. Obtaining legal documentation would be a first step in regaining agency. It means that their stay in Uganda will not be dependent to a decision of a third part, but that they are allowed to take decisions on their life.
The cessation clause gives the impression that the decision-makers have not fully grasped the political situation in Rwanda, and wrongly think that the country offers good conditions to come back. This fits in the widely accepted narrative of the Rwandan economic recovery and political stability, but conceals that Rwandans still flee their country because of the political climate. It raises the question of indicators used to measure security and leading to decisions such as cessation clauses. Who decides that a country is safe enough for its nationals to come back? What are the indicators used in that regard and how are decisions taken? Knowing that factors other than national security can play a role, consultation of the refugee community would help to mitigate any decisions taken on grounds other than humanitarian.
The implementation of the cessation clause is a challenge when the country of origin is still producing refugees because of a politically strained climate, as it is the case of Rwanda. This legal procedure has a dichotomic vision of politics and does not acknowledge that peace and political stability do not mean security. Implementing a cessation clause in this case is not only inefficient with decreasing the number of refugees but creates an unnecessary strong feeling of insecurity among the rest of the refugees, that goes against the mandate of UNHCR and the refugees policy defended by the Ugandan government.
 The decision to repatriate Rwandan refugees is regularly taken by the different governments hosting Rwandan refugees on their soil, ignited by the Rwandan government.
 The cessation clause is the clause that ends the refugee status. This status ceases to apply under certain conditions that are described in the Article 1C of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugee: the refugee “has voluntarily re-availed himself of the protection of the country of his nationality”, “having list his nationality, he has voluntarily re-acquired it”, “he has acquired a new nationality, and enjoys the protection of his new nationality”, “he has voluntarily re-established himself in the country which he left or outside which he remained owing to fear of persecution”, or “he can no longer, because the circumstances in connection with which he has been recognized as a refugee have ceased to exist, continue to refuse to avail himself of the protection of the country of his nationality”.