The UNHCR is much better than its reputation in Uganda suggests (and needs to say so)

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Will JonesThe proposed implementation of the Cessation Clause for some Rwandan refugees has prompted fierce debate. Two weeks ago, Will Jones travels to the Nakivale Refugee Settlement, in Uganda, to meet a group of refugees who have been campaigning against the move. This is his reflection from his visit. Will is a Research Officer at the Refugee Studies Centre at the University of Oxford.



I had driven the best part of a day through Southern Uganda to reach Nakivale Refugee Settlement on the border with Rwanda. Nakivale is one of Africa’s oldest refugee camps (Rwandans first fled to there following the ‘Hutu Revolution’ of 1957) and now contains roughly 60,000 Rwandans, Congolese, and Somalis (along with many other nationalities – some of its residents like to say they live in the real Organisation of African Unity). This is not the choked ghetto usually evoked by media representations of African refugee crises: Nakivale is a confederation of villages that unfolds over 90km2 of land, and contains enough farming and animal husbandry to feed itself, and still produce more to export. And though Nakivale is in the middle of nowhere, it is anything but isolated from cultural, social, and economic activity: several cinemas run (showing Chinese Kung Fu films dubbed into Kiswahili or Kinyarwanda), a complex array of markets sell goods from as far afield as Thailand, and there are plenty of smartphones in evidence taking advantage of the new mobile phone mast erected in the centre of the settlement. And then there was the reason I was there: from this settlement a small but determined group of Rwandans had dedicated much of the previous decade to dogged campaigns of letter-writing, petitions, online advocacy, and otherwise pestering international agencies in an attempt to raise international awareness of what was happening to them, and to try and mobilise international opinion against their threatened deportation back to Rwanda. I was there to try and interview them before the curtain came down on their advocacy, because – to cut a long story short – they had not succeeded. And, pretty soon, they believe they will be forcibly returned ‘home’ to the mercies of a government, of which they remain sincerely terrified.


The Rwandans of Nakivale have a long history. Successive upheavals, pogroms, and – of course – the genocide of 1994 and its aftermath have contributed to consecutive waves of Rwandans coming to Uganda. Many have (or had) longstanding connections to rwandaphone communities in Uganda, the current ruling party, or Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Movement (which previously contained the current President of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, and many of his closest political allies, when they were refugees in Uganda). Others are simply taking advantage of a relatively liberal asylum regime in a peaceful country (something in short supply in Africa’s Great Lakes region – historically a very dangerous neighbourhood). After the genocide in Rwanda and the coming to power of Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), most of the old caseload of Rwandans returned and were gradually replaced by a new cadre of Rwandans: disgruntled military officers, human rights activists, journalists who had fallen foul of the stringent new media regulations (criminalising genocide denial and the fomenting of ‘divisionism’), and those who had simply fallen foul of the oft-arbitrary and capricious politics of land in post-genocide Rwanda, where the abrupt return of the old caseload created many vicious conflicts over who owned what, and the losers of those disputes often had to leave the country in a hurry.

The current Rwandan government maintains that contemporary Rwanda is peaceful and the refugees of Nakivale can return safely. The only Rwandans with anything to fear, they claim, are perpetrators of the genocide, who must return to face the justice of the courts for their crimes. They have a point. Moreover, they have made a sufficiently persuasive argument that the Government of Uganda along with the UNHCR[1] have agreed to invoke what is known as the Cessation Clause: Article 1C(5) of the 1951 Refugee Convention which states, broadly, that if the reasons why refugee status was originally granted no longer apply, that status can be unilaterally withdrawn and the individuals concerned obliged to return home. In the euphemistic language of the convention itself, provided certain conditions are met, a refugee ‘can no longer…continue to refuse to avail himself of the protection of the country of his nationality’. There has been much back-and-forth over the implementation of the clause, which has watered its impact down substantially. The date for its execution has already been scheduled and then cancelled at the 11th hour twice, once in August 2009, and once in December 2011. What exactly it means for whom has also changed: originally Cessation seemed to apply to all Rwandans regardless of their circumstances. Now, in its current iteration, the clause only applies to Rwandans who applied for refugee status between 1957 and 1998, and even allows exceptions for those who can show that they  have a credible fear of persecution by the current government, for reasons particular to them.

The Rwandans in the camps themselves have fiercely resisted the clause. They have argued that the Rwandan government remains dictatorial, Tutsi-dominated, given to summary-justice and kangaroo courts for its political enemies, and intolerant of views that diverge from their own. They have a point, too. They have been trying for the best part of the last decade to convince international agencies, governments, NGOs, and just about anyone else that they should not be forced to go home. I was there to interview them about that, and the unanimous answer I got was that they believe they now face forced deportation, arbitrary violence, extrajudicial assassination, and worse. On the UNHCR’s schedule, this is happening to them in two weeks’ time.

What surprised me most about these interviews was the giant gap between what the UNHCR staff had told me in Kampala and Mbarara (the regional capital) and what these refugees believed. The UNHCR staff had patiently explained to me that the process had been delayed until the capacity was in place to screen individuals and put safeguards in place to present mistakes. They argued that the Government of Uganda had no interest in a politically-embarrassing series of forced deportations, and – frankly – that they wouldn’t be surprised if the Cessation Clause was, once again, not implemented at all. Rwandans in the camp were simply unaware of this. Lest there be any confusion: these were not otherwise uninformed or unintelligent people. Many of the Rwandans that I interviewed could speak for hours on the latest developments in the internecine political infighting in the Rwandan cabinet, and were reading up-to-date media in three or four languages,[2] but they had literally no idea what the UNHCR had done, nor what it was trying to do.

I prodded further: these people had smart phones. Internet access. They could cite reports by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, but they didn’t know what the UNHCR was up to? I didn’t believe it, and then I did my own digging. Wandering around the settlement you will encounter plenty of signs encouraging you to use a condom, or a malaria net (which everyone knows already, as far as I can see), but you won’t find much by way of public service announcements regarding the current advocacy or intergovernmental work of the UNHCR. There is a UNHCR compound hulking behind barbed wire and giant concrete walls, but even if you did get in, the staff that could give an informed answer on such questions are not there, they are in Kampala or Mbarara. Google ‘Nakivale’, or hunt round the UNHCR website, and you’ll find plenty of opportunities for the affluent to expunge their white guilt with lucre, but information for the refugees in Nakivale is non-existent. And I’m searching in English. Those looking to understand the issues at hand in Kinyarwanda or Tigrinya can forget it. I don’t want to say definitively that UNHCF don’t have a communications strategy with reference to the settlements in Uganda, but if they had, nobody actually living there seems to have heard of it.

There are four problems with this. Firstly, the information black hole left by the UNHCR is fertile ground for rumour, misinformation, and the distortion of facts. Many refugees are convinced that the Rwandan government’s intelligence services operate with impunity within Uganda, and conduct extra-judicial assassinations of anyone engaging in dissident political activity (the death of the Rwandan journalist Charles Ingabire in Kampala in 2011 is widely attributed to Rwandan government agents). For the purposes of this article, it is almost irrelevant whether or not that is true: the consequence is an environment fecund with fear, suspicion, and paranoia, where accusations and counter-accusations spiral and fester. For example, it was repeated to me in my interviews that the UNHCR had been bribed by the Government of Rwanda to delay the resettlement of refugees at risk to safe environments (Canada, Sweden etc.), or just to not resettle them at all. The true part of this is that it does take longer to resettle a Rwandan refugee, because many states require that the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Arusha (set up to prosecute the organisers of the genocide) confirms that anyone they might resettle is not on their list of suspects. This takes a while. But any Rwandan living in the camps trying to find a clear and authoritative source explaining why her Congolese neighbours are being resettled to the West when she is not, will look in vain. Instead, this vacuum is filled with conspiracy forums, websites ran by radical Hutu nationalists, and those who traffic in genocide denialism, or worse. The UNHCR’s silence creates precisely the radicals the Rwandan government is justifiably scared of.


Second, this corrosive silence materially harms the interests of legitimate refugees who merit resettlement outside Uganda. The process of identifying a case for resettlement (i.e., a refugee who ought not to stay in Uganda because they, for whatever reason, cannot be safe there), verifying the facts, assisting the individuals or family through the oft-idiosyncratic procedures of specific countries etc., is an extremely long and stressful procedure. Many of the problems with this process are not unique to Rwandans: repeatedly interviewing trauma victims about the details of their abuse more than a decade hence and using any inconsistency as grounds for rejection has more than a few obvious problems. But in this instance, the low reputation of the UNHCR stacks the deck even further against Rwandans. With no reason to trust the UNHCR, Rwandan refugees often omit details from their initial interviews with the organisation, which they are subsequently willing to discuss in their interviews with putative host governments (viz. the Canadians or the Swedes). This is  particularly true where sensitive issues around rape or other forms of sexual abuse are involved. In consequence, legitimate cases fall apart due to giant inconsistencies in the stories of refugees.

Thirdly, this makes life harder for the UNHCR itself. The ability of the UNHCR to act effectively, and to help the people it wishes to help, is increased by an order of magnitude when the communities it works with understand and trust it, and are willing to work with it. The story from Nakivale that illustrates this best is a happy one: in the area of Nakivale known as ‘Kigali’ there is there is one Rwandan (of many) who owns a mill for maize meal. Most of the time this is a secure profession with little if any interaction with the machinery of the UNHCR. However, in December of 2012, when the rebels known as M23 seized the Congolese border city of Goma, creating a mass influx of Congolese refugees flowing into Uganda, the UNHCR contracted him to provide much larger quantities of maize mill to cope with the increased numbers. This Rwandan had to hire lots more people, scale up production, and ended up producing vast quantities of maize meal over the six month period of the contract, making a significant contribution to the resolution of the emergency, and a fat profit in the process. This case of capitalistic acts between consenting adults illustrates a few things about the operation of the UNHCR, which ought be banal: the UNHCR’s job was substantially easier because it was able to make use of the talents, capital, and networks of refugees, the food security of refugees themselves was also improved. So far so platitudinous: what seems to be being missed is that their treatment of refugees as agents and their empowerment  of them as active participants in their own protection and livelihoods was only possible in this instance because (a) the Rwandan in question trusted the UNHCR as a credible interlocutor, and vice-versa, and (b) the UNHCR was involved in ongoing communication with refugees such that both sides recognised how they could act in mutually beneficial ways. Indeed, such communication is a first step to moving beyond thinking of sides and instead thinking of a set of problems about which the UNHCR and refugees can collaborate in finding solutions.

Finally, and most simply, the lack of a functioning communications strategy feeds into the deep and pervasive sense of hopelessness, abandonment, and marginalisation that develops where individuals feel deprived of the most basic information about their fate. Many articulate and intelligent individuals had written letters, petitions, and testimonies to the UNHCR. To Amnesty. To Human Rights Watch. Nobody ever replied to them. In all my interviews with the Rwandan community, nobody had even received an official acknowledgement of their efforts. Not once. Often these are individuals hanging on with their fingernails to a sense of themselves as more than human cargo. To keep people informed about their futures is about more than utility: it is about dignity, and about respect.

It might be thought that overcoming these gaps is simply beyond the capacity of the UNHCR. And, indeed, overcoming the caustic legacy of mistrust which now pervades Nakivale will be difficult. But I want to finish by suggesting a set of ways the UNHCR could make moves in this direction. Most obviously, a lot of the necessary infrastructure does exist. Local partner organisations, such as Refugee Law Project, have great relationships with many refugee communities and could be a simple and effective conduit for much information using many of the resources they already possess. Secondly, refugees themselves possess a great deal of communications infrastructure. There are radio stations in the camps set up and owned by refugees created with no support. Such outlets could and should be used to promote the UNHCR’s message inside the camps. Perhaps most simply, Nakivale is online. People who have internet print out articles for those that don’t. News can and does move round the settlement quite quickly. The UNHCR could overcome several of the huge information deficits in Nakivale very quickly if they supported a simple, clear, and authoritative news platform in the languages people in the camps speak, giving them basic information about what is going on (although even if it was only in English or French, translation would get it round the camps pretty quickly – albeit sometimes unreliably – the key point is for it to be authoritative and in one place). For example: want does the refugee convention say about their particular cases? How does Cessation work? Who is exempted? If they believe they are exempted, how should they go about demonstrating that? What rights are they currently guaranteed in Uganda by OPM (the Office of the Prime Minister)? Who should they talk to for what? Amnesty International staff remarked that often people simply turn up at their offices for issues they are totally unable to help with, and need to be sent across town to a different organisation. If they believe they are going to be forcibly deported illegally, whom should they call? The current UNHCR model is ‘sensitisation’ workshops, held in open spaces in communities. These reach fewer people, are subject to the simplifications of translators working instantaneously, and are vulnerable to the vagaries of memory.

[1] Popularly known in Rwanda as hauts criminels rassasiés

[2] English, French, Kinyarwanda, Kiswahili would be the usual candidates

6 thoughts on “The UNHCR is much better than its reputation in Uganda suggests (and needs to say so)

  1. We are not,because,even before war was there.i If you say Rwandan are criminals. What do you main?For me as rwandan who has 20years old.I fell bad because i did not know what happened in that year you talk about.

  2. the hutu tribe, they cannot return to their country not for criminal crime but because they fear the torture.can you imagine if Tutsi tribe can accuse you that you have an Ideology of Genocide just because they want to chase you to your Job? no peace in Rwanda even if they sing Peace but they still have many problems of tribes please there is youth who don’t know Genocide. why not resettled them? why they are facing the problems of their decedents?let know that the criminal is personally not for all.

  3. Pingback: informations

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