Are there Internally Displaced Persons in Rwanda?

from Global IDP Project
Published on 23 Jul 2003
The Global IDP Database of the Norwegian Refugee Council has now updated its country profile on internal displacement in Rwanda. A summary is presented below. The Database and the country profile can be accessed at, or the complete profile can be sent to you by e-mail on request (
Almost three years after UN stopped classing people as IDPs in Rwanda, there are still nearly 200,000 relocated families in inadequate shelter. Their conditions are little different from those officially classified as internally displaced, despite UN claims that the situation in the country has "advanced beyond" this (UN OCHA 18 December 2000). UNDP's efforts to find funding for these families have come to nothing. This leaves open the question whether there are IDPs in Rwanda.


Since the 1994 genocide, in which up to two million people fled their homes, Rwanda has suffered repeated waves of displacement. Following the government's military victory over the perpetrators of the genocide in 1994, the majority of the population fled to Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo) Burundi and Tanzania.

By the end of 1996, the government's army launched attacks in then Zaire against refugee camps and rear bases of the perpetrators of the genocide. The majority of the refugees who had fled to Zaire in 1994 were thus forced back to Rwanda 2 =BD years later. Soldiers from the former government's army who did not return assisted by NGOs and UNHCR, stayed behind in Zaire and initiated attacks against targets in the north-western prefectures of Ruhengeri and Gisenyi.

Consequently, the security situation deteriorated dramatically until the national army got the upper hand and managed to stabilise the situation by the end of 1997 beginning of 1998. As part of its efforts to stabilise the situation even further, the government moved hundreds of thousands of recently returned refugees into supervised camps in the northwestern prefectures of Ruhengeri and Gisenyi. Most of them were relocated by the government from makeshift camps in 1998-1999 and included in the "national villagization process" (A policy whereby the government intended and still intends to relocate the whole population from scattered housing to villages, see below) At the peak of the displacement in December 1998 there were more than 650,000 Internally Displaced Persons. (UNOCHA 31 August 1999)

In December 1999 this number was reduced to 150,000 people because only those who received direct humanitarian assistance were now being counted. (UN OCHA 24 December 1999, Rwanda) The following year UNOCHA stopped counting IDPs and stated the following: "while conditions of return and resettlement are often yet inadequate, governmental and international efforts to stabilize the situation through durable solutions have advanced beyond the threshold of what still could be called internal displacement" (UN OCHA 18 December 2000). This decision was welcomed by the government as it considered the country to be in a development phase.

The government's justification for the villagisation policy

The government said that basic services could be provided in a more cost-effective way in villages, that land could be distributed more rationally and that villages inhabited by different social groups could help promote reconciliation. In the northwest, the government has justified the villagization process by pointing out that traditional scattered settlements left people exposed to the action of rebel groups (CHR 8 February 1999). Grouped settlements in the northwest were also seen as a way of depriving the insurgents of hideouts and covert support (Brookings Initiative in Rwanda November 2001).

Differing opinions on the situation of the relocated people

However, the US Committee for Refugees stated in June 2000 that the relocation process in the northwest could be considered a new phase of displacement and gave the figure of 600,000 internally displaced persons. In 2001 it counted as internally displaced 150,000 people resettled into villagization sites without proper shelter or land allocations (USCR 2000 & June 2001).

Human Rights Watch denounced the government in 2000 for continuing to resettle people in spite of the improved security situation (HRW December 2000).

In May 2001 the same organisation claimed that tens of thousands had been resettled against their will and that many of those had to destroy their homes as part of the government's efforts to stabilise the situation(HRW May 2001).

Some UN agencies and international NGOs have said the process of villagization has not always been voluntary, particularly in Ruhengeri and Gisenyi. For instance, the UN Special Representative for Rwanda reported in 2000 that some coercion had occurred during the resettlement process (CHR 25 February 2000). Local Rwandan authorities in several communes reportedly recognized in 1999 that more than half of the resettled population in the northwest would have preferred to go back to their original homes as security improved, but that the army could not (or would not) guarantee their safety (WFP June 1999). In any case, the Rwandan government has not let people go back to their former homes, despite the quelling of the insurgency in the northwest.

Nearly 200,000 relocated families live in precarious conditions as of July 2003

The situation of the relocated people, whether they are to be considered as IDPs or not, remains unclear, particularly in the northwest. In 2001 the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Rwanda expressed concerns that the reintegration needs of large numbers of Rwandans had not been sufficiently addressed and that there was a danger that people who were still in desperate need would not be reached (CHR 21 March 2001). In October 2001, a multi-agency mission including UN, donor and Rwandan government representatives examined the conflict-related needs not fully addressed by humanitarian assistance in Rwanda, such as human settlement and access to land. It assessed that 192,000 families in resettlement villages still lived in inadequate shelter, covered by old pieces of plastic sheeting or banana tree leaves, compared to 370,000 families in 1999. The habitat situation in the northwest was substantially worse than in the pre-war era, and 73% of vulnerable households were now in the northwest Prefectures of Ruhengeri and Gisenyi. Many of the resettlement sites lacked adequate basic services, such as access to water and latrines. The families who do not have adequate shelter are among the most vulnerable in Rwanda, and many of them are women or child-headed households (Brookings, November 2001 & OCHA 10 October 2000, p.12).

192,000 households is, almost three years later, still UNDP's and the government's working figures for families in inadequate shelter and reflects roughly the real number of rwandans still affected by the displacements that took place in 1998 and 1999. This figure is not expected to be altered significantly by a survey undertaken by a consultant hired by UNDP and the Ministry of lands human resettlement and environmental protection (MINITERE). (Telephone conversation with UNDP Kigali 16 July 2003)

The government's response

The Rwandan government has attempted to remedy some of the errors of early resettlement efforts. It allocated the equivalent of US$ 1.9 million for the resettlement and reintegration of IDPs in the period 1998-2002. It has provided social services to the some new villages with the help of the international community and has encouraged mixing in villages originally inhabited by either Hutu or Tutsi groups. At the national level, it is elaborating a new land system, which will permit private ownership of land on a wide scale, and should mitigate future land disputes (Brookings, November 2001) The most recent effort to mitigate the situation for the former or current IDPs is a donor conference scheduled for the end of 2003 after the elections. (Telephone converstaion with UNDP Kigali 16 July 2003)

The donors' response

Many donors were reluctant to support villagization programs during the resettlement process beyond the emergency phase. Moreover, the internally displaced were resettled apparently in an unplanned manner, without the required social infrastructure, especially in the northwest (IRIN 28 July 1999 & UNHCR 2000). Nonetheless, donors still contributed tens of millions of dollars to the resettlement program in Rwanda throughout 1999 and 2000(HRW May 2001). In its country cooperation framework with the Rwandan government for 2002-2006, UNDP stated in September 2001 that there was considerable concern about the slowdown in financing for the Government resettlement program and that UNDP would take the lead to promote the conclusions of the task force of the "Brookings Initiative" regarding this crucial area (UNDP 20 September 2001).

Why is it important to debate whether there are Internally Displaced People in Rwanda?

The slowdown in financing the government's resettlement program is reflected in the number of families apparently still living in inadequate shelter as of July 2003 compared to November 2001. If the UN figures reflect the reality, hardly any construction or improvement of shelter conditions took place for the 192,000 vulnerable families between November 2001 and July 2003

This suggests that their living standards and prospects have not improved significantly since they were classified as IDPs. In other words, efforts to find durable solutions still centre on those issues relating to internal displacement, despite UN claims that things have moved beyond this (UN OCHA 18 December 2000). Consequently, the question whether there are Internally Displaced People in Rwanda remains open.

Political development

Rwanda endorsed a new constitution in May 2003 in the midst of well documented international critisism of the government claiming that it is severly repressing the political opposition. Disappearances, threats, physical harassment and killings have been exposed by international NGO's and led to a climate of fear and political distress in spite of continued and apparent peaceful reintegration of millions of former refugees and displaced persons. (HRW May 2003, USCR, World Refugee survey 2003)

On 15 April 2003, the Transitional National assembly voted to dissolve the major opposition party (Mouvement Démocratique Républicain, MDR) because of alleged "divisionism", a term the government which is dominated by the Rwandan Patriotic Front uses for persons or parties seen as advocating an ideology which sustains the ethnic divisions in Rwanda.

If a relevant court decides to dissolve the party, a major obstacle for the RPF's victory in the forthcoming presidential and parliamentary elections due to take place by the end of 2003 will thus be removed. There will be very little time for a new party to pave the way for a popular and effective opposition to the current government.

(Updated July 2003)

The country profile includes complete reference to the sources and documents used.