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This document is from the archive of the Africa Policy E-Journal, published
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Rwanda: Refugee Report, part 1
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Rwanda: Refugee Report, part 1
Date Distributed (ymd): 951109
The following are excerpts from the most recent report from
the U.S. Committee for Refugees, based on visits to Rwanda and
eastern Zaire in September and October. The full report is
available from USCR, 1717 Massachusetts Ave., NW, #701,
Washington, DC 20036. Tel: (202) 347-3507; fax: (202) 347-
Rwandan Refugees: Updated Findings and Recommendations
October 25, 1995
Site Visit Notes by Jeff Drumtra, USCR
Part 1 Goma Refugee Camps
* Zaire gives mixed signals about the seriousness of its
threat to expel all refugees by year's end.
Zaire expelled 13,000 refugees in August and insists that
its December 31 deadline is serious. During USCR's site
visit, Zairean officials were verbally pressuring the
refugee population by announcing restrictions on refugee
employment and housing outside the camps. By all accounts,
average Zaireans in the area are increasingly discontented
with the refugees presence. At its recent Tripartite
Meeting with Rwanda and UNHCR [UN High Commission for
Refugees], Zaire indicated its readiness to arrest former
Rwandan leaders who are impeding repatriation. ...
On the other hand, Zaire has rarely implemented similar
threats. ... Zaire's forcible expulsion in August
conspicuously did not target the former Rwandan military
(FAR), militia members, or other leaders who impede refugee
Important individuals in Zaire's government, armed services,
and economy benefit from the refugees presence. Many
observers suspect Zaire's expulsion threat is little more
than an attempt by Mobutu to extract political and financial
concessions from the international community on other
Zaire's ultimate actions toward the refugees will depend on
internal Zairean politics and the complicated power
struggles among the country's civilian authorities as well
as among competing branches of the police and military. ...
< Recommendation #1 > Take seriously the Zaire government s
threat to forcibly expel all refugees by the end of 1995.
Given the chaos and probable violence that massive forcible
repatriation would trigger inside Rwanda, the world cannot
afford to shrug off Zaire's expulsion threat, despite
uncertainty about the threat's validity. Relief agencies and
international diplomats would be wise to assume that
forcible expulsion is likely to occur and should pursue
strategies to avert it or alleviate its destabilizing impact
inside Rwanda. ...
< Recommendation #2 > UNHCR should encourage larger
voluntary repatriation in an effort to preempt precipitous
action by Zairean authorities.
UNHCR officials in Goma and Rwanda believe that a steady,
organized flow of about 6,000 voluntary repatriations per
day would mollify Zairean officials and avert massive
forcible expulsion. [This] is an ambitious goal and would
carry its own risks inside Rwanda, given the traumatized
nature of Rwandan society and the limited capacities of the
Rwandan government. These inherent risks, however, are
preferable to the destabilizing effects of a sudden,
massive, forced repatriation of a half-million or more in
less than a week. ... The question is whether UNHCR can
stimulate 6,000 voluntary repatriations per day. Thus far,
UNHCR is far short of its goal.
* UNHCR/Goma is attempting to pursue a get-tough strategy
toward Rwandan refugees.
... UNHCR/Goma's strategy is to make conditions in the
refugee camps more difficult in order to persuade more
refugees go home voluntarily. ... Few of the get-tough
actions had actually been implemented at the time of USCR s
< Recommendation #3 > Take aggressive steps in refugee camps
to promote voluntary repatriation.
The aggressive repatriation strategy of UNHCR/Goma is a
reasonable strategy under the circumstances. USCR supports
this approach, if it is implemented properly. Refugees would
continue to receive essential services that often surpass
the services available to indigenous Zaireans. ...
< Recommendation #4 > UNHCR/Goma should clearly explain its
aggressive repatriation strategy to NGOs working in Goma
refugee camps. NGOs should cooperate with UNHCR's strategy.
Many NGOs operating in Goma appear to be confused about
UNHCR's aggressive repatriation strategy. Some who
understand the strategy apparently oppose it. Some NGOs, for
example, continue camp improvement projects and resist UNHCR
pressure to curtail the hiring of refugee employees. ...
The level of distrust between UNHCR/Goma and many NGOs could
potentially undermine UNHCR's repatriation strategy by
sending contradictory messages to the refugee community. ...
< Recommendation #5 > More NGOs in Goma should make a
concerted effort to eliminate suspected murderers from their
Some relief agencies make a good-faith effort to screen
their refugee employees to eliminate undesirables. Too many
international NGOs in Goma, however, continue to employ
Rwandan individuals who are strongly suspected of
participating in last year's mass murder. This is ethically
unacceptable. Relief agencies should make a good-faith
effort to screen their camp employees in order to ensure
that the employees are drawn from the hundreds of thousands
of innocent Rwandan refugees. ...
< Recommendation #6 > NGOs should provide a proper
historical orientation to new expatriate staff working in
the Rwanda region. ...
Given the short-term contracts and rapid staff rotations
common in overseas relief work, many NGO staff in Goma and
in Rwanda are new to the region and lack a full
understanding of the historical and political context in
which they are working. ...
USCR recommends the African Rights report, Rwanda: Death,
Despair and Defiance, as obligatory reading for any
individual or organization attempting to play a constructive
role in the Rwanda region. The report can be purchased from
African Rights in London. Phone 011-171-717-1224; fax 011-
* There are six repatriation scenarios for refugees in
Zaire. All scenarios are problematic. ...
First, aggressive voluntary repatriation. UNHCR's aggressive
voluntary repatriation strategy could persuade several
hundred thousand refugees to return home, at a rate of
20,000 to 40,000 per week. This would presumably be the most
organized and most stabilizing method of repatriation. Even
this rate of return, however, would test Rwandan society.
Secondly, forcible repatriation-by-expulsion, known in
international refugee law as refoulement. Zaire might
execute its threat to forcibly expel all one million
refugees. This sudden uncontrolled flood of humanity would
create chaos inside Rwanda, leading to a humanitarian
emergency, human rights problems, land conflicts beyond the
capacity to respond, and probably a more vigorous armed
insurgency by FAR [the army of the former regime].
Thirdly, incremental refoulement. Zaire might engage in
incremental forcible repatriation--intermittent raids on
camps to push tens of thousands across the border at a time,
without removing the entire refugee population.
Fourthly, repatriation invasion. The exiled Rwandan regime
might direct all refugees to march home in a human wave ...
This would likely provoke violence that would quickly get
out of hand. ...
Fifthly, incremental repatriation invasion. The exiled
regime might choose to instigate limited voluntary
repatriation by specific communes. ...
Sixthly, status quo negligible repatriation. Perhaps UNHCR s
aggressive voluntary repatriation strategy will fail.
Perhaps Zairean authorities will ignore their own
repatriation ultimatum to the refugees. Perhaps
international donors will continue to fund camps in Zaire at
a cost of $1 million per day. This scenario would prolong
the overall crisis with no sign of progress, maintain the
power base of a genocidal regime, and sustain regional
< Recommendation #7 > Organized voluntary repatriation is
the preferred option. It can only be stimulated by
It should be acknowledged that this option has drawbacks.
... If the strategy successfully stimulates repatriation, it
will likely provoke new problems inside Rwanda ... These
concerns, however, are more acceptable than other, more
dangerous options outlined above. ...
* Many Rwandan refugees in Zaire now openly consider the
prospects for repatriation. This is a significant change.
Zaire's forcible expulsion exercise in August and its threat
to expel all refugees in the near future have changed camp
dynamics. More refugees now discuss openly the pros and cons
of returning to Rwanda, and are more openly inquisitive
about conditions there. ... This change in mindset, however,
has not yet produced more voluntary repatriation.
* The refugee population is not monolithic. At least four
mindsets exist about repatriation.
The refugees fled to Zaire together last year and have
remained in Zaire together for more than a year. It is
therefore easy for outsiders to mistakenly assume that the
refugee population is monolithic in thought as well as in
deed. It is not, particularly in recent months.
One group in the camps are criminals, guilty of
participating in last year's genocide. As criminals, they
are not bona-fide refugees under international law and
should not be treated as such. Given their own guilt, they
will probably choose never to participate in any
repatriation program. A reasonable estimate is that 250,000
to 500,000 Rwandans in Zaire and Tanzania may never
repatriate, due to their guilt or their family ties to a
A second group are hardliners who are not guilty of
genocide. They are, however, vehemently opposed to the RPA
[army of the current Rwanda government] and believe all
propaganda disseminated by the exiled genocide leaders.
A third group are average refugees who are only now
beginning to consider repatriation. They tend to trust--or
at least follow--their extremist leaders, but are now less
sure. ... They are desperate, confused, and believe their
future on either side of the border is bleak. They are
unprepared to repatriate voluntarily at this time. This
appears to be the largest of the four groups.
A fourth group are refugees who apparently have decided they
want to repatriate, but are not confident to do so on their
own. They often have their own sources of information about
conditions in Rwanda. Therefore they suspect that negative
propaganda in the camps exaggerates the risks of return.
Others in this group believe the risks are great, but they
are ready to take their chances. Some are awaiting updated
information about their home areas. Some are waiting for an
opportune moment to leave the camps.
< Recommendation #8 > Refugees who are actively considering
repatriation should be targeted by UNHCR and the
The right strategies and tactics could peel away tens of
thousands of refugees who fall into the fourth group,
described above ... They need accurate information before
taking action. ...
* Overt intimidation in refugee camps has diminished.
Psychological intimidation via propaganda remains strong and
... The exiled regime and its militia maintain control over
the refugees through relentless propaganda about the
allegedly certain death that awaits returnees to Rwanda. The
core message to refugees used to be, We will kill you if
you try to repatriate ; the message now is, They will kill
you in Rwanda if you try to repatriate. ...
Actual incidents such as the RPA massacre of 110 persons at
Kanama in September, overcrowding of jails, etc., are widely
publicized along with false atrocities. Immediately after
the forcible repatriation in August, camp propaganda
inaccurately reported that large numbers of the returnees
were killed or tortured in Rwanda. ... Many NGO workers in
the camps are susceptible to the propaganda as well, because
they often lack alternative channels of information about
events in Rwanda. ...
* Refugees do have several valid concerns about returning to
Rwanda. Not all fears are due to propaganda misinformation.
Although many refugees worst fears are without basis, some
fears are valid. Refugees are well-informed about Rwanda s
overcrowded prisons. They have legitimate concerns that a
wrongful arrest could be fatal due to appalling prison
conditions. They also have reasonable concerns about how
quickly they can reclaim their land if squatters refuse to
Refugees fears regarding land disputes are often greater
than their concerns about security, some relief workers told
USCR. In other words, widespread fear and confusion about
the land adjudication system may be the most significant
deterrent to repatriation, in many cases.
< Recommendation #10 > Launch a sophisticated and relentless
mass information campaign to give refugees a fuller picture
of conditions in Rwanda. ...
UNHCR, the entire UN system, and NGOs in the region should
coordinate an aggressive campaign to provide refugees with
accurate information on a sustained basis. Distributing
weekly bulletins in refugee camps or holding monthly
meetings with refugees are insufficient tactics. Information
should be provided daily, hourly, in a relentless fashion,
about conditions in Rwanda, development projects underway,
activities of returnees, etc. ... Specific recommendations
< Recommendation #11 > Increase direct contact between
Rwandan government officials and Rwandan refugees. ...
< Recommendation #12 > Provide detailed information to
refugees about Rwanda's justice system, including procedures
for arrest and detention.
Refugees are acutely aware that arrests and detentions occur
in Rwanda. From their perspective in the camps, all arrests
and detentions appear to be arbitrary and more pervasive
than they actually are. The refugees need to be told
repeatedly that a justice process does exist, and exactly
how it works. Individuals released from detention for
wrongful arrest should be interviewed on radio to explain
the process in their own words.
< Recommendation #13 > Provide detailed information about
the human rights situation in Rwanda.
The UN Human Rights Field Operation in Rwanda, UNAMIR, and
UNHCR protection officers routinely collect massive amounts
of data on security and human rights conditions throughout
Rwanda. Little of this information reaches the people who
need it most--the 1.8 million Rwandan refugees who crave
accurate information. The best customers for this
information are not getting it.
Information about security in Rwanda should be provided to
refugees and relief workers in the camps on a daily basis
... The information should highlight where problems exist in
Rwanda, but should also highlight where the security
situation is calm. ...
< Recommendation #14 > Provide detailed information
describing how refugees reclaim their land if it is occupied
upon their return.
The government of Rwanda has said repeatedly that refugees
retain ownership of their land. To the extent this message
has reached refugees, it is still insufficient information.
Refugees want to know how the policy is being implemented.
They want to know, in detail, exactly where they should file
a claim if their land is occupied by squatters upon their
return. They want to know how long the process requires them
to wait before they can regain possession of their occupied
land and homes. They want to know what temporary
accommodations and other security are available while they
await their land. Refugees interested in repatriating
hesitate to make a final decision because they cannot find
answers to these detailed questions.
An information campaign on radio and via camp meetings
should provide this information repeatedly. In addition,
refugees need to hear the first-hand stories of returnees
who have regained their land.
< Recommendation #15 > Enable more refugees to conduct go-
and-see visits to Rwanda to collect first-hand information
... Information-collection visits are a basic tool proven
effective in facilitating refugee repatriations around the
world. Rwandan refugees have been unable to make such
scouting trips regularly due to restrictions by Rwandan and
< Recommendation #16 > The Rwandan government and RPA should
allow personal letters to pass unimpeded between refugee
camps and the interior of Rwanda.
The Rwandan government and RPA should allow private letters
to pass easily between refugee camps and the interior of
Rwanda. Currently such mail is screened and, at times,
confiscated by Rwandan authorities. The benefits of allowing
information to cross the border outweigh the Rwandan
government's security concerns. ...
< Recommendation #17 > Provide intensive information on
alternative radio broadcasts into the Goma camps. ...
< Recommendation #18 > NGOs in Goma should enhance their
ability to provide information to refugees. NGOs should
regard aggressive information dissemination as a core
Private relief agencies operating in Goma and in Rwanda have
a crucial role to play in giving refugees accurate
information about conditions in Rwanda. Many NGOs perform
the role poorly. Many NGOs in Goma exhibit a striking lack
of knowledge about conditions in Rwanda. ...
Given the one-sided propaganda battle underway in the camps,
international agencies should take responsibility for
providing new channels of information to the refugees. This
requires commitment of staff time and a willingness to share
information on a daily or weekly basis with outsiders.
NGOs, working individually or as a consortium, should
designate field staff information officers responsible for
systematically providing information to radio stations (see
above), to UNHCR, and to other components of a mass
< Recommendation #19 > NGOs in Goma should require
expatriate staff to spend time in Rwanda to gain better
knowledge of conditions there.
NGOs operating in refugee camps in Zaire and Tanzania are
perfectly positioned to communicate accurate, useful
information directly to the refugees they serve.
Unfortunately, many NGO/Goma staff lack information about
Rwanda. Many have never set foot in Rwanda. Some NGO workers
tend to believe exaggerated propaganda about Rwanda
emanating from the exiled regime.
NGOs in Goma should oblige all staff members to spend a week
in Rwanda in order to gain a more accurate understanding of
conditions there. Goma relief workers with even limited
experience in Rwanda are better equipped to answer refugees
questions comfortably and with credibility. ...
Giving Goma relief workers exposure to Rwanda should not be
viewed as an inconvenient nuisance--it is an important
tactic made necessary by the unique nature of the Rwandan
refugee situation and its propaganda war.
< Recommendation #20 > NGOs in Goma should attempt to
monitor the well-being of their former refugee employees who
have returned to Rwanda.
Most NGOs in Goma hire refugees as employees, and most NGOs
can cite several refugee employees who quit their jobs and
repatriated. During USCR's site visit, NGO/Goma workers
regularly expressed curiosity about the fate of former
colleagues who had repatriated. Many expatriate staff and
refugees interpreted the lack of specific news as an
indication that returnees had encountered serious troubles
or death in Rwanda. This pervasive no news is bad news
mentality is often inaccurate, counterproductive, and
NGOs in Goma should attempt to track former employees who
have repatriated. UNHCR/Rwanda and NGOs in Rwanda should
assist in collecting this information upon request. ...
Refugees employed by NGOs are often influential in refugee
camps, and news about their safe return to Rwanda could
influence other refugees.
< Recommendation #21 > Exploit the fact that Goma's refugee
camps are organized according to communes and sectors--it is
therefore easy to provide commune-specific information
directly to refugees from a given commune.
Refugees can benefit from general information about Rwanda,
but detailed information about conditions in their home
commune or home sector is most influential. The highly
organized structure of the refugee camps by home commune
should facilitate bringing commune-specific information
directly to the appropriate refugees.
Refugees should receive weekly reports about life in their
home communes, including information about relief projects,
development projects, human rights monitoring, crop
production, etc. Collecting and disseminating this
information requires proper collaboration between
UNHCR/Rwanda and UNHCR/Goma.
* Health conditions among refugees in Goma are excellent.
Malnutrition is negligible. Birth rates have returned to 90%
of normal Rwandan levels.
UNHCR and relief organizations have accomplished a
remarkable logistical and humanitarian feat in the Goma
refugee camps despite the unfavorable terrain. Camps that
were thought to be unsustainable have been sustained. The
question is whether international donors will remain willing
to support the massive camps without some progress toward
(continued in part 2)
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