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Uganda Urged to Stop Returning Refugees to Rwanda

  • Michael Onyiego

Advocates for refugee rights are criticizing the Ugandan government for forcibly returning hundreds of refugees to Rwanda, calling it a violation of national and international law.

Kampala-based organizations the Refugee Law Project and the International Refugee Rights Initiative have called on the Ugandan government to immediately halt the removal of Rwandan refugees living in southwestern Uganda.

On Wednesday Ugandan Police, along with officials from the Directorate of refugees began loading Rwandans living in the Isingiro and Kyenjonjo districts into trucks in order to return them to their country of origin. According to a release issued by the groups, the asylum seekers were lured by officials with promises of refugee status and food.

The Refugee Law Project and the International Refugee Rights Initiative have accused officials of violating the Ugandan Citizenship and Immigration Act by failing to follow the guidelines for deporting refugees denied requests for asylum. The groups have also pointed to international law such as the Convention on the Right of the Child, which they say the government has violated.

The repatriation efforts of the government were also condemned by the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, in a press release on Wednesday.

Uganda's refugee minister has told the French Press Agency (AFP) there were not legitimate reasons for the refugees to be given asylum in Uganda and he said the Ugandan government was following proper procedures.

Rwandan refugees have been resettling in Uganda since the Rwandan Genocide in 1994. Many of those include Hutus who fled the country after Tutsi rebels took power from the Hutu government in the wake of the atrocities.

Under international law refugees may not be returned to their country of origin if they have a reasonable fear of persecution. But Ugandan Officials argue that many of the Rwandans in Uganda are trying to avoid prosecution for their role in the Genocide.

The director of the Refugee Law Project, Chris Dolan, said that many refugees in Uganda fear they will be victimized by the Gacaca Courts, which are used in Rwanda to address crimes committed during the genocide.

"The question is whether justice is being done when people get back to Rwanda," said Dolan. "Many people feel that the Gacaca Court hasn't always been impartial. But in some instances it has been used as a way of dealing with personal grievances, as a way of preventing particular groups from getting access to their property. There are question marks about whether it has always been as impartial as it should be."

Dolan also pointed out that many Rwandans have entered Uganda well after the 1994 genocide. The director said that over 1,000 refugees have entered since January, suggesting broader problems in Rwanda which may make repatriation impossible.

International organizations such as the New York-based Human Rights Watch have raised similar concerns. Human Rights Watch has accused President Paul Kagame of manipulating the legacy of the genocide to discriminate against Hutus living in the country and shut down political opposition.

But Mr. Kagame has denied these charges, and the Tripartite Commission, the group which oversees Rwandan refugee response in Uganda, agrees that the conditions in Rwanda are appropriate for resettlement.

During a meeting in May the commission, composed of Uganda, Rwanda and the UNHCR, set a tentative date of December 2011 to invoke the cessation clause of the UNHCR Statute. If the clause is invoked, Rwandans arriving in Uganda will no longer be granted refugee status and will be forced to return home.