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Challenges to Rwandan former refugees’ integration in Zambia

This article addresses the complexities regarding the option of local integration in Zambia from the perspective of Rwandan refugees facing the decision and potential risks inherent in giving up their refugee status and related protection. It was submitted to the Rights in Exile Newsletter by the Rt. Revd John Osmers, the Assistant Anglican Bishop of Lusaka. For reasons of clarity it has been lightly edited. After receiving this article, we also received this update.

The offer of local integration to 4,000 former Rwandan refugees in Zambia was widely welcomed following the cessation of their refugee status in Zambia in June 2013. The offer included rights of ten hectare plots of land, assistance with housing, water points, and improved roads, clinics and schools. However, what was hoped would be a straightforward process expected to be achieved in three years has proved more complicated than expected.

The first challenge has been the [the former refugees’] reluctance to accept Rwandan government passports and surrender their refugee cards. This is required by Zambian government law if it is to accept the integration of Rwandans as foreigners living in Zambia rather than as refugees.[1] Not having a Rwandan passport with a Zambian residence or other permit stamped in it obviously leads to the potential for arrest, imprisonment and a substantial fine for a Rwandan, now viewed as a foreigner, not having the necessary permit endorsed on their passport.

Accepting Rwandan government passports requires that [former] Rwandan refugees renounce their refugee status. While having been told that they are allowed to remain in Zambia and will not be forced to return to Rwanda, this act, acquiring a passport, obviously implies that they also accept that Rwanda is a safe place to return to. They believe acquiring Rwandan government passports puts them under Rwandan government surveillance and control which they see as a danger to their security, and that of their families at home.

And as foreigners in a country, in this case Zambia, where they have lived now some 20 years, where their children have been born, one would have assumed that naturalization would be the solution. However this is not possible under the present Zambian constitution and it appears that temporary permits have been ruled out. Certainly this is what is recommended for all refugees in the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. Granting citizenship after a period, sometimes as short as two or three years, is what is practiced for refugees in North America, Australia, New Zealand, throughout Europe, and this is what protected them from UNHCR’s recommendation for the invocation of the Cessation Clause in those countries.

Back in Zambia however, the Rwandan refugees have continued to resist taking Rwandan government passports and their appeals to retain their refugee status still remain on the Minister’s table.[2]

And it is no wonder that Rwandan former refugees are greatly concerned by the contradiction between the Zambian government’s reassurances expressed in their policy of refugee local integration and the Regional Office of UNHCR and the Commissioner for Refugees, both of which continue to be actively working for Rwandan former refugee repatriation. The UNHCR in Zambia is working with the UNHCR in Kigali to take Rwandan refugees in Zambia to Rwanda, and have recently revived their controversial “Go and See and Come and Tell” programme. Clearly this has come about at the behest of the Rwandan government. The Rwandan Patriotic Front government is determined for its security reasons to want all Rwandan exiles back in the country, or at least to be under surveillance and control, by ensuring that those that do not return possess Rwandan government passports.

Unsurprisingly, the “Go and See and Come and Tell” programme is very contentious, the last such programme taking place in 2004. Rwandan refugees were then being encouraged to repatriate to Rwanda as the preferred durable solution for their future. UNHCR noted that resettlement (to a country outside Africa that resettled refugees – e.g. Canada, USA, Australia, Sweden and a few other European countries), was for a few only, and local integration was not mentioned. The experience Rwandan refugees had of the “Go and See Come and Tell” visit was that it was a carefully structured programme aimed to bring the predetermined conclusion that Rwanda is a developing and democratic country to which a Rwandan refugee should willingly return. Eleven years later Rwandans in Zambia believe that reintroducing such Rwandan government-organised visits is detrimental to their interests, as they still need Zambian government protection.

Two Rwandan former refugee university students were selected by the UNHCR Regional office to visit Rwanda in December last year, and were meant to travel using the UNHCR travel document which, incidentally, expressly forbids travel to Rwanda. The programme was not discussed with members of the Rwandan former refugee community, and when it was made known, some Rwandan community members were alleged to have sent messages which led to the two students deciding not to travel and return their allowances of USD800. Later, they were asked to give the names of the senders of the messages to the Lusaka police.

A visit to Rwanda by senior Zambian government leaders who are responsible for refugee policy took place on 23 March this year. The delegation included the deputy minister for Home Affairs and the permanent secretary, the representative of UNHCR, the Commissioner for Refugees and officials from his office. Apparently, two Rwandan refugee leaders were part of the delegation. They went without gaining the general agreement of the Rwandan former refugee community, and said they hoped to correct any wrong impressions given by the visit.

There are reports that attempts to choose Rwandan former refugees from the large Meheba refugee settlement to accompany the same delegation met with some resistance. It is alleged that Theodore Barangwaningiro, a Catholic Church catechist, was publicly humiliated and tortured by being handcuffed to a tree outside the administration office by police for four hours at the instigation of the refugee officer, and then released without charge. It is said that Theodore had told a Rwandan former refugee selected for the visit that he should not go, especially as the visit did not have community support. Church leaders are taking up the case, being concerned about protection for vulnerable refugees.

Sadly the Rwandan former refugee community is fraught with suspicion that some former Rwandan refugees may be working for the Rwandan government, which can gain by any refugee community divisions. Concerns about Rwandan government influence in Zambia are compounded by the recent plans for Rwandair to establish a base in Lusaka, and the proposed establishment of a Rwandan embassy. It is known that the Rwandan government is disturbed that the cessation of Rwandan refugee status has not resulted in the mass repatriation of Rwandan former refugees they had hoped for. Under the previous Movement for Multi-party Democracy government Zambia was the first country to initiate interviews concerning Rwandan refugee status.[3] It is not anticipated that present government plans for local integration or appeals for international assistance to support that process will be reversed in favour of forced Rwandan former refugee repatriation.

Rwandan former refugees are concerned that they still live under the constraints of the Refugee Control Act of 1970, enacted six years after Zambian Independence. Most are still confined to the refugee settlements of Meheba and Mayukwayukwa, which continue to restrict former refugees’ freedom of movement; one can leave only for limited periods to specified destinations by gate passes. For those living in urban areas, work permits are obtained with much difficulty, with extra costs imposed on refugees. Moreover, refugees must spend time and effort to get letters from the Commissioner for Refugees’ office to obtain the necessary documents such as birth certificates, study permits and identity documents. And, since UNHCR no longer views Rwandans as refugees, they no longer have access to the UNHCR support office, for example for such services as health and educational needs, and the UNHCR has taken the position that Rwandans are no longer to be considered for resettlement programmes.

In March this year Rwandan former refugees planted 400 trees in the area of Senior Chieftainess Nkomeshya Mukamambo 2nd, as a contribution to Zambian development. They also built a house with roofing tiles made from soil, a Rwandan innovation that can be a valuable skill for improved rural housing. They look forward to continuing discussions with the Zambian government, and with Church and other leaders concerning their long-term future in this country through local integration. They hope that the programme can be expedited without diversions that shift the focus away from their present and future needs to contribute to the long-term development of Zambia which they now view as their home. They remain grateful for the support they have received from the late president, His Excellency Michael Sata, the new president, His Excellency Edgar Lungu, the Zambian government and the nation at large.

[1] And, at the most obvious level of the argument, the Zambian authorities needed a document upon which the residency permit could be stamped!

[2] This same reluctance to take Rwandan government passports is expressed by most Rwandan exiles throughout the region.

[3] There is confusion as to whether it was the government or UNHCR who conducted these “status” interviews. Some claim that UNHCR conducted them and Zambian government only acted to put a signature on the predetermined decision by UNHCR. Moreover, there is a rumour that UNHCR offered Rwandans USD 800 to go on the recent “go and see” trip.