Rwandan Government’ Motives to Repatriate Refugees and Their “Self-Protection”

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Peace Studies Association of Japan 2018 Autumn Package Session 

Re-examining the Refugee Protection and Repatriation: A Case Study of Rwandan Refugees 

Rwandan Government’ Motives to Repatriate Refugees and Their “Self-Protection” 


Rikkyo University

Masako Yonekawa


Keywords: cessation of refugee status, genocide, self-protection, UNHCR, repatriation



The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) claimed that Rwanda has changed significantly since the 1994 genocide, and today enjoys an essential level of peace and security. This is why the UNHCR facilitated voluntary repatriation of Rwandan refugees from 1994 to 2002-2003, and subsequently promoted actively voluntary repatriation from 2003 to 2013 in some countries in Africa. This decision to promote voluntary repatriation was despite the solid evidence suggesting a greater outflux of refugees than influx of returnees. Even those Rwandans who had repatriated earlier returned to their former countries of asylum because of having no right to claim their land, illegally occupied by the RPF and other returnees, as well as arbitrary arrest and imprisonment of many people. In 2013, UNHCR finally recommended the invocation of cessation of their refugee status, which can imply “mandated repatriation”. As a result, some refugees in some countries of asylum where the cessation clause was invoked, lost refugee status in January 2018. Despite the UNHCR’s long-time call to repatriate, the vast majority of Rwandan refugees have refused to return, and some Rwandans continue to flee today.


1. Who are the present-day Rwandan refugees?

The latest statistics on Rwandan refugees worldwide stands at 296,649 as of end 2017. The present-day refugees have three characteristics. First, majority-group Hutu refugees in general are branded as génocidaires (genocide killers) by the minority-group Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), the current Rwandan government. This labelling has been a useful propaganda tool by the RPF to boldly hunt and repatriate or target refugees. Second, these refugees are also framed as anti-Rwandan, opposing the state process of reconciliation and national unity. The ideal Rwandan citizen is considered a refugee who voluntarily returns to the motherland to contribute to the reconstruction of the state. Third, many refugees are outspoken members of the elite, such as journalists, human rights activists, and teachers, both Hutu and Tutsi. In addition, former RPF war comrades and members of President Paul Kagame’s entourage have fled. 


2. Rwandan Government’s motives to repatriate refugees

The refugee’s strong reluctance to return to Rwanda must have embarrassed the Rwandan Government. The Government has been aggressive in having the refugees return, not only because repatriation represents promotion of the country’s international image, but also because the Government wanted to effectively control the refugees. In order to convince them to return, as well as to destabilise and silence the outspoken refugee community, the Government has reportedly deployed a “refugee spy” group. Composed of “diplomats,” students, and even refugees, members of this group pose as Rwandan, Congolese, or Burundian refugees. The Government has been using the “infiltration” and “divide and rule” tactics in various situations, such as the host government’s refugee office, the UNHCR, and refugee camps, refugee committees, places of work, and even within refugees’ own families.


3. Refugees’ means of “self-protection”

When the RPF’s infiltration constantly threatens refugees, how do refugees manage to survive or “self-protect”? Due to their strong mistrust with the UNHCR and international human rights organisations, refugees, depending on the countries of asylum, rely on local human rights organisations or church groups for protection and assistance. In order to protest the cessation clause, refugee communities in few countries have organised press conference and have written petitions to the UNHCR, explaining how premature the cessation clause was and demanding them to continue exercising the protection mandate for Rwandans.

  Apart from these means, what has been prevalent among refugees worldwide is that some refugees disguise their nationality by registering as Congolese or Burundian refugees: the refugee committee in one African country estimated that more than 50 per cent of Rwandans have registered as Congolese or Burundians upon arrival. Being Congolese is particularly beneficial for some reasons. However, disguising one’s nationality does not mean that refugee’s safety is guaranteed, and disguising also has other negative consequences, such as psychological insecurity. 


Further Research

Three subjects require future study. The first is the nature and motivation of the repatriation of different actors, particularly the government of origin. The second is the situation of refugees after their return, especially in a densely populated country where recovering land and property can lead to conflict. The third is the effect of the application of the cessation clause of refugee status on refugees’ psychological insecurity. 


Main Reference

  • International Refugee Rights Initiative and Refugee Law Project, A Dangerous Impasse: Rwandan Refugees in Uganda, June 2010.
  • Kingston, L.N. “Bringing Rwandan Refugees ‘Home’: The Cessation Clause, Statelessness, and Forced Repatriation”, International Journal of Refugee Law, 1 Aug. 2017.
  • UNHCR, “Implementation of the Comprehensive Strategy for the Rwandan Refugee Situation”, Geneva, Dec. 2011.
  • Winter, R. “Lancing the Boil: Rwanda’s Agenda in Zaire”, H. Adelman and G. C. Rao eds., War and Peace in DRC/Congo: Analyzing and Evaluating Intervention, 1996-1997, Trenton, Africa World Press, 2004.
  • 米川正子『あやつられる難民―政府、国連、NGOのはざまで』ちくま新書、2017年。