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‘Please Tell Us Where We Belong’: A Deadly Refugee Protest in Rwanda

At least 11 Congolese refugees were killed at a protest outside a U.N. refugee agency office in Rwanda in February. We examine why refugees were protesting, how the U.N. and Rwandan authorities responded and the refugees’ quest for accountability.

Written by Roland Kalamo, Charlotte Alfred Published on Read time Approx. 8 minutes
This picture taken on September 6, 2016, shows the entrance placard of the Kiziba camp in western Rwanda. STEPHANIE AGLIETTI/AFP/Getty Images

On a February morning, hundreds of refugees marched out of Kiziba camp in Rwanda, their belongings stuffed into bags, carried on their heads or wheeled on wooden scooters.

They were embarking on a 9-mile (15km) walk to the district U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) office. Their demand: U.N. assistance either to repatriate to their country, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), or to move to another country like Uganda – anywhere but Rwanda.

“We would rather die along our repatriation journey instead of dying with hunger, discrimination and chronic disease,” refugee leaders had warned two weeks earlier, in their latest letter to UNHCR protesting aid cuts.

By nightfall on Feb. 20, several thousand refugees were camped out in front of the UNHCR office in Karongi, the capital of western Rwanda on the shores of Lake Kivu. Just across the lake lies the refugees’ homeland – North and South Kivu provinces of eastern DRC – where militia battles continue to rage and refugees continue to flee more than two decades after Kiziba camp was established.

The third day of the protest ended in confusion and bloodshed. After trying to prevent more arrivals from Kiziba and warning they would clear the refugees by force, Rwandan police broke up the protest camp outside UNHCR’s offices with tear gas and live ammunition on Feb. 22.

At least eight refugees were killed at the protest, and three others died back in Kiziba camp, according to UNHCR. Many other refugees were wounded. Police said seven officers were injured when refugees threw stones. Other refugees were arrested; at least 21 people by the UNHCR’s count.

“We can’t even know how many people have died – parents might think that their children are in prison,” said Congolese refugee Elizabeth* at a meeting with government and UNHCR representatives following the protest. “In the mortuary, we were told not to take pictures of the dead.”

“This tragedy should have been avoided,” UNHCR said in a statement. “The disproportionate use of force against refugees is not acceptable.”

The U.N. refugee agency also focused on the severe shortfall in international aid to the 173,000 refugees living in Rwanda: just 2 percent of UNHCR’s $98.8 million 2018 appeal for Rwanda has been funded. Some news headlines later characterized the protest as a “food riot.”

While aid cuts were a major concern for the protesters, their grievances go deeper than food or fund-raising. The protesters were demanding rights: Either continued protection from UNHCR, or a “durable solution” such as safely negotiated return to DRC or relocation to another country like Uganda. They worried they were slipping into the cracks between the categories of refugee and citizen in Rwanda, able to hold neither UNHCR nor the Rwandan government to account.

Their protest took place in a country where – while lauded for its economic development and generosity towards refugees – demonstrations are rare and human rights groups have documented severe repression of dissent.

“We never wanted to do anything bad to Rwanda because this country has welcomed us and we don’t have anything against it,” Elizabeth said at the meeting. “We just wanted an answer about repatriation, but the answer we got was to be killed.”

The Path to the Protest

Kiziba refugee camp, in the hills of western Rwanda, first sheltered refugees fleeing violence in eastern DRC in 1996. Some of its 17,000 residents have lived there ever since.

While refugees have the right to work in Rwanda, many remain impoverished and dependent on aid because of other restrictions, such as access to education and finance and the location of the refugee camps.

So refugees have been hit hard by recent aid shortfalls. In 2017, the World Food Programme (WFP) switched from food aid to cash assistance of $9 per month for refugees in Rwanda. In November, WFP cut cash transfers by 10 percent. In January 2018, they were cut 25 percent to $6.70 – around 22 cents a day.

“We are afraid that refugees will die massively from hunger,” read another letter from Kibiza’s executive committee of refugee leaders to UNHCR after the January cuts.

As aid dwindles, agencies are searching for alternatives. Rwanda’s refugee ministry and UNHCR launched a four-year plan to boost refugee employment and economic inclusion last year. Rwanda also recently joined the U.N.’s pilot program for a more sustainable approach to refugee assistance, called the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework, which includes refugees’ integration into national development planning and social service systems rather than maintaining parallel humanitarian structures.

U.N. agencies are also trying to shift from blanket distribution of aid to targeting limited assistance to the most vulnerable refugees in Rwanda. In late 2017, WFP, UNHCR and UNICEF discussed using Rwanda’s existing social protection system, called Ubudehe, to do so. Refugee leaders said they were disturbed to learn of this at a February meeting in Kigali with Rwandan minister for disaster management and refugees, Jeanne d’Arc de Bonheur.

“We have never asked the Rwandan government to be integrated in Rwanda because there is no land.”

“They want to integrate us into the Rwandan population. We don’t want it and we were not involved in the decision-making process about being put in Rwandan categories,” said Louis Maombi, president of Kibiza’s refugee executive committee in a February interview. “We would like to go to another country in which we can live as refugees or return to our country of origin if [the Congolese government] will accept us as their citizens.”

Broadly, Ubudehe is a traditional concept sometimes defined as “working together to solve problems” that has become part of the Rwandan government’s national development agenda. Specifically, it involves the needs-based categorization of the population, so that governmental assistance can be better targeted according to vulnerability.

Refugee leaders like Maombi were concerned that categorization in the national Ubudehe scheme would remove them from the humanitarian aid system, leaving them reliant on the less substantial social protection services for Rwandan citizens without the benefits of citizenship, such as feasible ways to make a living.

Citizenship is also closely tied to land rights in this region, and Rwanda has an acute land shortage. “We have never asked the Rwandan government to be integrated in Rwanda because there is no land,” Maombi explained. “Since 1996, not one of us has enjoyed even a square meter of land here.”

After the protest march to Karongi, Rwanda refugee ministry official Jean Claude Rwahama said there were no plans to integrate refugees into the Ubudehe system. In a statement, the ministry said U.N. agencies were only “inspired by” the Ubudehe model for targeting assistance in their own vulnerability-based aid system.

UNHCR spokesperson Daniela Ionita told Refugees Deeply in an email that Ubudehe would be used as “guidance” for the socio-economic profiling of all refugee households as part of a possible shift to targeted assistance.

“An important part of enabling such socio-economic inclusion is to ensure that refugees have the same rights and obligations … as the Rwandans do and eventually gradually integrate in national systems,” she said. “This does not mean refugees will be forcibly naturalized nor lose their refugee rights, but it will avoid parallel systems.”

The Aftermath

If the protest arose from political tensions around integration and refugees’ future in Rwanda, the response of both Rwandan authorities and the UNHCR has only exacerbated the refugees’ fears about falling between the cracks.

“Does being a refugee mean one cannot exercise his freedom?” a refugee from Kibiza said in an interview after the protest, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Why did they use firearms on us … were we at a government office? Why didn’t the UNHCR stand on our side?”

“Does being a refugee mean one cannot exercise his freedom?”

While promising to investigate the deaths, the Rwandan government has blamed the refugee leadership, including Maombi, for escalating the protests rather than entering into dialogue with the government. After sending multiple letters to the authorities and UNHCR, Maombi said he was afraid that attending a follow-up meeting with the government or UNHCR would lead to his arrest.

In the wake of the killings, government and U.N. representatives met with Kiziba refugees at a nearby football stadium on March 15.

“As the government we are sad that as many as you are, a committee of few people made bad decisions and you listened to them,” Rwandan minister of refugees De Bonheur told the gathered refugees. “The Rwandan government is governed by its laws, and you as refugees have rights, but also you have to abide by the Rwandan law.”

She tried to reassure the refugees over Ubudehe. “I think people misunderstood us,” she said.

It was at this meeting that Congolese refugee Elizabeth*, who is now caring for six orphans, appealed for information about the missing, proper medical treatment for the wounded, and above all – clarity on who was responsible for refugees in the country.

“My question is, are we still in the hands of UNHCR or of the Rwandan government?” she asked. “Forgive us and have mercy on us as you came to sympathize with us. Please tell us where we belong, thank you.”

“I want to be very clear with you: this land where you are is Rwandan territory … it doesn’t belong to UNHCR,” responded UNHCR’s representative in Rwanda, Ahmed Baba Fall. “We don’t have a territory, we don’t have services, and we don’t have land. We are here to support the government to ensure your protection and your well-being. I want to be very clear: you are in the hands of the Rwandan government, you are not in the hands of UNHCR.

His declaration caused a ripple of protest through the crowd of refugees and the UNHCR official’s voice rose in annoyance. “The way you behave reflects what you are and who you are. I think you have been here for too long,” he reprimanded them.

“You have the right and the freedom to return to Congo any time you want – even now! [But] it will not be with the help of UNHCR. It will be your own decision and your own way of doing this. You can take a bus and your luggage and cross the border to go back to Congo. You don’t need to come to say hello or goodbye to UNHCR, you can just go straight.”

“I heard that you wanted UNHCR to take you to Uganda,” he continued. “We will never take you to Uganda. But you can take a bus to Uganda like all the other Congolese, Burundians and Rwandese who go and come back to Uganda every day.”

UNHCR spokesperson Ionita told Refugees Deeply that the agency does not support the repatriation of Congolese refugees due to insecurity in the DRC, and works to inform refugees who want to return independently about the dangers in the country.

The day of the meeting, the Kiziba refugee executive committee wrote another letter requesting assistance for their safe repatriation to DRC, addressed to the government of Rwanda.

In their continued petitions and reports, refugees from Kiziba insist the government and media are wrong to portray this as a protest just about food. Their problems, reads one recent refugee dispatch, are “deeper and worse than the reduction of the rations, problems that blur the hope for the future for these refugees.”

* Names have been changed for the safety of refugees.

This story has been updated to correct that Karongi is the capital of western Rwanda, not Uganda.

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