Tanzania + 1 more

Repatriation of Rwandan refugees living in Tanzania

News and Press Release
Originally published
by Joel Frushone, Policy Analyst
This policy paper is the third in a series.

During November 2002, U.S. Committee for Refugees visited Tanzania and Rwanda to examine the repatriation of Rwandan refugees living in Tanzania and offer policy recommendations. Following is a summary of the situation and USCR's analysis.


The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the governments of Rwanda and Tanzania abruptly announced in Geneva, Switzerland in October 2002 that the estimated 25,000 mostly ethnic Hutu Rwandan refugees who remained in Tanzania should voluntarily repatriate by December 31, 2002. The repatriation operation, which began and ended ahead of schedule, remains problematic for several reasons:

1. The Tanzanian government again triggered a controversial repatriation that appears to have been less than fully voluntary.

2. UNHCR/Tanzania and UNHCR/Rwanda were caught by surprise by the Tanzanian government's repatriation deadline and were slow to react in a manner to ensure that Rwandan refugees would repatriate in safety and dignity.

3. The Rwandan refugee population in Tanzania inevitably attracted a certain amount of suspicion that some asylum seekers might have been complicit in Rwanda's 1994 genocide. In setting a sudden deadline for voluntary repatriation, however, the Tanzanian government failed to implement simultaneous procedures to individually screen Rwandan refugees unwilling to repatriate, in order to determine whether they should retain refugee status.

4. It remains unclear if the Tanzanian government will safeguard the rights of Rwandan refugees who remain in Tanzania. How the Tanzanian government will treat Rwandans who wish to seek asylum in Tanzania in the future also remains cause for concern.


An estimated 25,000 Rwandan refugees -- virtually all ethnic Hutu -- lived in Tanzania at the beginning of 2002, including some 18,000 in Lukole 'A' camp and more than 5,000 in Kitali Hills camp. Both refugee camps are located in Tanzania's northwest province of Kagera, near the town of Ngara.

Many of the refugees had originally fled to Tanzania in 1994 as part of a massive influx of 500,000 refugees. The refugee population also included about 11,000 Rwandans who fled to Tanzania during 2000-2001.

The Tanzanian government's treatment of Rwandan refugees during the past eight years has been mixed. Tanzania is one of the largest refugee-hosting countries in Africa, with refugee populations outnumbering local residents in some areas. But government officials periodically have mounted aggressive and highly controversial efforts to repatriate Rwandan refugees under less than fully voluntary circumstances.

In 1996, Tanzanian authorities pushed nearly a half-million Rwandan refugees home, claiming that they were better off in Rwanda than in Tanzanian refugee camps where they lived under the control and intimidation of Rwandan refugee leaders suspected of complicity in Rwanda's 1994 genocide. In 1999, government officials ordered all remaining Rwandan refugees to repatriate, but fewer than 1,000 heeded the order.

During 2000-2001, with the number of Rwandan refugees again on the increase, Tanzanian authorities expressed a growing desire to confine the refugee population to designated camps and encouraged them to repatriate. About 5,000 Rwandans voluntarily returned home during the first 10 months of 2002, primarily to southeastern Rwanda's Kibungo Province.

With approximately 22,000 Rwandan refugees still in Tanzania in October 2002, an increasingly impatient Tanzanian government suddenly decreed that all remaining Rwandan refugees should depart the country by December 31, 2002.

Critical Events:

In late September 2002, UNHCR and the governments of Tanzania and Rwanda convened a tripartite meeting in Geneva, Switzerland to discuss durable solutions for Rwandan refugees living in Tanzania. The officials agreed, in part, that security had improved in Rwanda and that more Rwandan refugees were voluntarily repatriating on their own.

In light of improved security in Rwanda, increased repatriation flows, and other indicators, the Tanzanian government announced in early October 2002 that UNHCR would actively begin promoting the voluntary repatriation of Rwandan refugees living in Tanzania. The Tanzanian government, referencing a communiqué issued at the conclusion of the September 2002 tripartite meeting, also announced that the repatriation of the entire estimated 22,000 Rwandan refugees still living in Tanzania must commence in mid-November and conclude by December 31, 2002.

In mid-October, UNHCR/Tanzania prepared a comprehensive plan of action to execute the voluntary repatriation. A coordinated review of refugees unwilling to repatriate was a critical component of the plan but was not implemented by UNHCR/Tanzania and the Tanzanian government's National Eligibility Commission before the repatriation deadline.

UNHCR/Tanzania lacked adequate financial resources and personnel in late 2002 to properly begin the new promoted repatriation exercise. UNHCR/Rwanda was even less prepared to properly receive repatriating refugees and assist with their reintegration. Nevertheless, under considerable pressure from the governments of Tanzania and Rwanda, the first UNHCR repatriation convoy under the new repatriation agreement hastily departed Tanzania for Rwanda on November 6, 2002, well in advance of the stipulated mid-November start date.

No UNHCR/Rwanda staff were present to receive the first convoy of returnees at Nyakarambi, the Rwandan government's designated reception center. Neither UNHCR/Rwanda nor the government of Rwanda had constructed structures to shelter the repatriating refugees, who disembarked and huddled together on the wet grounds of the administrative headquarters in a chilling rain. UNHCR/Rwanda also failed to have in place standard operating procedures to register returning refugees and did not designate a place for distribution of repatriation assistance packages. The grounds also initially lacked adequate medical, sanitation, and water facilities.

By November 22, 2002 -- the third week of the promoted repatriation program -- UNHCR/Rwanda had finally made desperately needed improvements to receive and begin to reintegrate the large numbers of returnees. UNHCR/Rwanda constructed two warehouses to properly shelter refugee returnees and store food and non-food repatriation items. UNHCR/Rwanda also constructed additional latrines and planned to construct a kitchen to cook and serve hot meals to returnees for the duration of the repatriation operation.

According to UNHCR/Tanzania, some 3,000 Rwandan refugees repatriated on December 27, 2002, officially ending the operation. The number of Rwandan refugees still in Tanzania as of January 1, 2003 remains uncertain.

Refugee Testimony:

USCR interviewed many refugees at the Lukole B transit center in Tanzania and at the Nyakarambi reception center in Rwanda in November 2002.

"Yes, I eventually wanted to return to Rwanda, this is where I was born and want to die," 62-year-old Rose told USCR at the Nyakarambi reception center. "I just wish I had more time to prepare. Moving in a rush like this is difficult for an old woman like me."

"Why am I going home?" a 35-year-old Rwandan refugee from Kibungo province rhetorically asked USCR at the Lukole B transit center. "Because Rwandans and Tanzanians in positions of authority made it clear that they want me to go home. Otherwise, I would stay here with my family until I was ready to go on my own terms."

Interviews by USCR elicited many similar comments that emphasized the less than fully voluntary nature of the repatriation program during the final two months of 2002.


1. UNHCR entered into a tripartite agreement to promote the voluntary repatriation of Rwandan refugees living in Tanzania, but did not initially have the human and financial resources needed to properly carry out the operation.

2. UNHCR should have negotiated a more reasonable schedule for the repatriation of Rwandan refugees living in Tanzania or should have delayed commencement of the exercise until a safe and dignified return could be ensured.

3. Pressure exerted by the governments of Tanzania and Rwanda on Rwandan refugees living in Tanzania and on UNHCR officials in Tanzania and Rwanda played a significant role in unnecessarily hurrying the voluntary repatriation program.

4. There is reason to believe that most Rwandan refugees living in Tanzania registered to repatriate with UNHCR assistance because they believed they had no alternative. The Tanzanian Minister of Home Affairs directed government officials in western Tanzania to deport Rwandan refugees unwilling to repatriate.

5. The repatriation program began well in advance of the target commencement date, initially causing several thousand Rwandan refugees to return home in an unsafe and undignified manner until UNHCR improved its assistance weeks later.

6. Not all Rwandan refugees living in Tanzania repatriated. Many fled to other Africa countries, including Uganda, Malawi, Zambia and Kenya, and sought asylum or attempted to enter illegally. Others dispersed to other areas of Tanzania or re-entered Tanzania posing as Burundian refugees.


1. The Tanzanian government and UNHCR should jointly and immediately commence individual screening of Rwandan refugees who wish to remain in Tanzania in order to determine their official status.

2. The Tanzanian government should offer protection to Rwandan refugees unwilling to repatriate at this time and grant asylum to Rwandan refugees who choose to flee to Tanzania in the future. The international community should press the Tanzanian government to fulfill these fundamental responsibilities.

3. In future repatriation exercises, the Tanzanian government should simultaneously present refugees with two alternatives:

Register to voluntarily repatriate; or

Register to undergo individual status determination screening in order to ensure continued protection in Tanzania for bonafide refugees.

4. UNHCR should continue to strengthen its monitoring and assistance programs in Rwanda to ensure that Rwandan returnees are able to reintegrate safely and properly. UNHCR/Geneva should provide appropriate financial and human resources to UNHCR/Rwanda to conduct reintegration activities.

5. UNHCR should conduct a post-operation assessment in Tanzania and Rwanda regarding how the promoted voluntary repatriation of Rwandan refugees living in Tanzania was negotiated amid the Tanzanian and Rwandan government's adversarial and contradictory positions toward refugee protection. The post-operation assessment should examine how UNHCR could have better protected the rights of refugees and returnees.

6. In the future, UNHCR/Geneva should consider deploying a special negotiating team to assist UNHCR country directors in the field during difficult negotiations with governments.

"USCR is a public information and advocacy program of Immigration and Refugee Services of America, a nongovernmental, non-profit organization. Defending the rights of refugees, asylum seekeres, and displaced persons worldwide"