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Congolese Refugees in Rwanda Forced to Join DRC Rebels - 2002-09-20

The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, says able-bodied Congolese men who have taken refuge in Rwanda are being forced to return to the Democratic Republic of Congo, in some cases, to join rebel security forces. The U.N. refugee agency says the situation of thousands of people who fled to Rwanda from Congo is becoming increasingly precarious. It says more than 8,500 Congolese refugees of Tutsi origin have been forced to return to unsafe areas in eastern Congo over the last three weeks.

UNHCR spokeswoman, Millicent Mutuli says the agency is extremely concerned by reports that local Rwandan authorities have been telling young able-bodied men to return and join the rebels. "These are people who had fled, who had come to Rwanda seeking refugee status," she said. "They are people who are not involved or wanted to be involved in the fighting in the Congo. So, this is not something they want to return to. In any case, these are not grounds for repatriation. Of course, if they willingly want to do that, that is up to them. But, they are complaining that they are under pressure to go back for these reasons."

More than 32,000 Congolese refugees are living in two camps in Rwanda. Ms. Mutuli says local authorities are using various means to intimidate and pressure the refugees to go home.

For instance, she says, more than one-thousand information posters telling the refugees that all returns should be voluntary have been torn down. In another worrying development, she says, schools in refugee camps were not allowed to re-open in early September. She says the authorities told the private aid agency running the schools that they only could operate outside the camps.

UNHCR Spokeswoman Mutuli says the Rwandan government says the refugees are leaving voluntarily. "The pressure that we are seeing being applied cannot be a part of a voluntary return program," said Millicent Mituli. "So, while the government is subscribing to the view that, indeed returns should be voluntary, on the ground there continues to be intimidation. We see officials of the rebel group, RCD/GOMA (Congolese Rally for Democracy) present in the camp. We find that this really is in conflict to a voluntary situation, because there is intimidation by people from the other side."

Ms. Mutuli says the outlook for the Congolese refugees is bleak. She says the Rwandan government and rebel groups are continuing to conduct their program of forcible returns, despite protests from the UNHCR.