Rumor and speculation are rife in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) North Kivu province regarding the anticipated return of Congolese refugees from Rwanda. Sparked by the signing of a tripartite agreement between the governments of the DRC, Rwanda and UNHCR in February 2010, feelings of hostility towards the idea of their “return” are widespread. These refugees are not really Congolese, some argue, and their “repatriation” is, in fact, part of a broader scheme by Rwanda to appropriate land in North Kivu. Indeed, some of the UN agencies operating in North Kivu have been accused of having a hidden agenda and promoting Rwandan encroachment on Congolese territory by facilitating their return.
Why the suspicion? The answer to this question lies partly in the way in which individuals and groups are seen to be included or excluded in the messy geopolitical context of eastern Congo, where violence, sustained by an insidious war economy, has become the main currency of power, and where the pursuit of land is heavily laden with economic and symbolic importance. Although it would be highly simplistic to attribute Congo’s crises to ethnic tensions, ethnic categories remain a potent mechanism for mobilizing people, including the creation of ethnic-aligned militias. In this highly charged context this group of refugees is particularly vulnerable: they are from a minority group that is perceived as outsiders and as a threat.
A number of factors have created this impasse. First, the fact that these refugees speak Kinyarwanda identifies them with Rwanda and leads some, intolerant of cross border identities, to label them as Rwandan and not true Congolese. Second, the fact that the majority of this group is Tutsi identifies them with the current regime in Rwanda, and by implication the Rwandan government’s agenda in DRC, and makes them not only outsiders but threatening ones at that. Third, the fact that this group fled to Rwanda is seen as confirmation of their sympathies. This logic leads to another assumption: if they were never really Congolese, then they are not really refugees.
These factors conspire against their legitimacy as Congolese citizens, and the very basis on which they are looking forward to repatriation is seen as fraudulent. Therefore despite the fact that they have been officially recognized as Congolese refugees for the past 14 years, the current returns process is extremely fraught, and the prospect of the return of this specific group of refugees has been a matter of particularly intense discussion.
But as is so often the case when rumors abound, relatively few facts are circulating about this group of approximately 53,000 camp-based refugees (as well as tens of thousands more who have self-settled in Rwanda). In response, International Refugee Rights Initiative recently conducted research in Rwanda’s Gihembe camp, home to 20,000 refugees. Most of the group fled North Kivu to escape the chaos surrounding the 1997 ousting of President Mobutu by Rwanda and Uganda backed rebels. Their flight took place at a time of massive upheaval, when hundreds of thousands of Rwandan Hutu refugees were being coerced into returning to Rwanda, and Rwandan Tutsis were still in precarious exile throughout the region. Their current predicament and hopes for ending their exile formed the focus of the study.
Our findings show that, not surprisingly, these refugees do not want to be refugees. They talked of how, when they fled, they could never have imagined that 14 years later they would still be living in a camp in exile. Whether they had been hoping to be welcomed in Rwanda and offered citizenship, or whether they had anticipated spending a few months sheltering before it was safe to return to Congo, the fact is that for a decade and a half this group have been living in camps without access to land, subject to restrictions on their movement and completely dependent on humanitarian aid. Cattle-keepers without their cows, with no land to graze them on in a country that is already desperately overpopulated, they are living in a camp full of dead-ends.
Despite assertions in Congo about their close connection with Rwanda, therefore, these refugees have clearly not locally integrated. Although we were unable to secure official interviews with government of Rwanda officials as part of the research, it is understood that Rwanda has confirmed that there are no barriers in theory to applying for citizenship for any in this group. Yet in practice, these refugees have lived in isolation for 14 years and the refugees do not perceive Rwanda as ready to provide opportunities for better integration, or to welcome them as citizens.
As a result, these refugees are yearning to return to North Kivu. They see returning to Congo as offering the best opportunity to shed their refugee status and re-establish livelihoods. Most importantly, repatriation offers the prospect of (re)instating their Congolese identity and proving their legitimacy to belong.
Yet as they are all too well aware, repatriation presents both a threat and an opportunity. If return is pushed forward without adequate measures being taken to affirm their legitimacy to belong, renewed conflict and flight is likely. The refugees recognize, therefore, that in order for return to become viable they will need to negotiate acceptance in Congo at both a national and at a local level. First, refugees talked about the need to return as recognized Congolese citizens and not as Tutsis or Kinyarwanda speakers. They saw their group identity as a liability and that the ability to genuinely (re)engage with the state as a citizen would be a key factor in determining the safety and durability of their return. Second, they recognized that their acceptance as citizens by the national government, though critical, will have limited salience if they are not also accepted in the local areas from which they fled, and where they would try to reclaim land and property.
Ultimately, therefore, the findings show that durable solutions—in particular repatriation—need to be reconceptualized as essentially a political rather than humanitarian process, whereby repatriation represents the restoration of the political contract between the citizen and the state that was broken by their exile. Repatriation needs to be constantly linked to the broader process of post-conflict (or post-authoritarian) reconstruction: the ability for individuals and groups to secure citizenship, therefore, becomes not only an indicator that exile has ended, but that broader issues of instability have been, or are being, addressed—that there is a functioning state to which people can attach themselves.
At the same time, the local context in which repatriation takes place is of huge importance and cannot be overlooked. The predicament of this group of Congolese refugees provides a prism through which to view the multiple dynamics and tensions that remain fundamentally unresolved in North Kivu—tensions that are both highly localized and yet interact with the broader national and regional context. These tensions revolve around polarized constructions of identity, mobilized and manipulated by those seeking to gain power. Over decades, these fissures have been translated into ethnically-aligned militia groups, violent struggles over access to land and resources, and decades of conflict and displacement. Until these root causes of conflict are addressed, durable solutions for these refugees are likely to remain elusive.
At the heart of this story, therefore, is the question of the “true” citizenship of this group of Congolese refugees at both a national and local level. There is no simple answer to this question, and certainly not one that can be answered only at a legal level, or that can be imposed from outside. The task of negotiating the return of this group of refugees to DRC is a multidimensional challenge that requires political compromise; imagination and courage by those in exile, by home communities and by those in positions of power; and innovative approaches by those mandated to assist them.
This article is based on a report, Shadows of Return: The Dilemmas of Congolese Refugees in Rwanda, published by the International Refugee Rights Initiative as part of its series on Citizenship and Displacement in the Great Lakes region, carried out in partnership with the Social Science Research Council.