Cessation of Rwandan Refugee Status: Two Years On – Bishop John Osmers

History, plight, challenges of Rwandan refugee integration in Zambia
History, plight, challenges of Rwandan refugee integration in Zambia

Theodore Hatanga is a Rwandan former refugee in Zambia who runs a small shop in Chawama compound in Lusaka. He and his refugee community want Zambia to be their home, but to date they have no papers giving them legal residence. They lost their refugee status against their   will on 30thJune 2013, because of 10 years of pressure from the Tutsi dominated Rwandan Government on the UNHCR and international community. The RPF Government came to power as an external force, and wants all Hutu Rwandan refugees to return home to prevent them forming an effective opposition. In April 2013 the Zambian Government agreed that Rwandan refugees should not be obliged to return to Rwanda, as was previous Government policy, but be helped to make their home in Zambia. In October the same year a Zambian delegation met donors in Geneva, who pledged support to integrate 4000 out of 6000 Rwandan former refugees.

This resembled the policy of integrating 10,000 out of 18,000 Angolan former refugees in Zambia who lost their refugee status one year before. 6000 of them have been screened. They obtain Angolan Government passports, and   233 have been given residence permits allowing them to stay permanently in Zambia. The Government recently agreed to give residence permits to those former refugees who have lived in Zambia for over twenty years.

Archbishop Mpundu’s Open Letter to GRZ

For Angolan former refugees repatriation is a possible option, and in 2014 1609 Angolans returned home. It appears not to be an option for Theodore and the Rwandan former refugee community; only 4 returned last year, and only 300 since 2003 when the cessation of Rwandan refugee status was first agreed on. This is a clear indication that Rwandan Hutu refugees still fear persecution. They say they do not see any fundamental and durable changes in their country towards greater democratic freedom, or greater fairness in the justice system. They see no effective movement towards reconciliation between Hutu and Tutsi, but rather continuing systemic discrimination.


Angolan former refugees are being successfully integrated into Zambian society, a process expected to take three years. But not Rwandan former refugees. The stumbling block to Theodore’s and his community’s successful integration is their reluctance to take Rwandan Government passports, which are necessary to obtain Zambian immigration permits. For Theodore to possess a Rwandan Government passport would confirm that he no longer has a “well founded fear of persecution” and the need for international protection. It   would put him under control and surveillance by the Rwandan Patriotic Front Government which could decline to renew his passport after five years. By having a passport, he would become an ordinary migrant, like a migrant Sudanese or Ghanaian, and the possible requirement to return to Rwanda, already possessing the necessary passport for his return.


On 8th May this year the Zambian Cabinet announced that Zambia would offer Rwandan former refugees “alternative status”. The Minster of Home Affairs announced that a screening process would be set up, and those who did not qualify would be handed to the UNHCR. This statement seems to show that the Zambian Government is listening to Theodore and his community, and their reluctance to take Rwandan Government passports. To allow Rwandan refugees who decline to take Rwandan Government passports to return to refugee status under the UNHCR would ensure their welfare and security in Zambia which is their main desire, especially if they can have freedom of movement and employment.


The Catholic Church in Zambia led by the Archbishop of Lusaka continues to be a stalwart advocate for the poor and those without a voice in Zambia, especially refugees.   On May 18th this year Archbishop Mpundu wrote a comprehensive open letter to the Minister of Justice, and copied to the Minister of Home Affairs. He gave a scriptural basis for the Church’s intervention, and showed that he and the Catholic Church are listening carefully to the appeals of the Rwandan former refugee community in Zambia. He outlined reasons for their “well founded fear of persecution,” and the reasons why Rwandan Government passports are an obstacle to successful local integration. He advised the Government to allow Rwandan former refugees to return to refugee status which would give them security in Zambia.


To date, 733 out of 4000 Rwandan former refugees have various immigration permits, and between 800 to 900 live in urban areas. The majority of Rwandan former refugees are subsistence farmers restricted to Meheba rural Refugee Settlement in the North Western province. They totaled 2194 in December 2013. As in most countries in the region they are restricted in employment and in movement. In Meheba Refugee Settlement Rwandan former refugees who may have lived in the Settlement for many years still need “gate passes” to go out, usually restricted to one month. The old, infirm and physically challenged who can’t work receive K70, a month, not enough for basic subsistence.

Those who wish to better themselves by running small businesses in the town of Solwezi or like Theodore in Lusaka need an investor’s permit. The permit requires the enormous capital of $25,000, which appears to be a strategy to restrict refugees from coming to urban areas.  Family members like wives or other relatives may not assist in the business without their own investor’s permit. Those permitted to be in Lusaka for health reasons may not work for their survival without the same investor’s permit. Immigration officers are alleged to take bribes not to arrest those in urban areas found working without the required permit. If arrested, the penalty is a fine of K1, 200 and imprisonment in over-crowded prisons pending return to Meheba Settlement.


Expired Rwandan refugee cards are not being renewed, and this impacts very negatively on refugees especially in urban areas where clinics and schools may not receive refugee patients or students without valid ID cards, or allow the concessionary rates for refugees, and insist on the higher rate for foreign nationals. Without current ID cards they can have no access to bank services.   Birth certificates are not given which certify refugee status.


Some former refugees are still damaged by trauma endured though violence in Rwanda or on the journey to Zambia. Hardships in the remote rural refugee settlement and insecurity through unaffordable immigration requirements in urban areas have a damaging effect on refugee psychological well-being and family life.


As in other countries in the region, Rwandan refugee security remains a problem because of incidents of alleged attacks and abductions of prominent Rwandan exiles.    The opening of the Rwandan Government High Commission office in Lusaka gives cause for concern, and they are believed to be recording details of Rwandan refugee professionals and business people.


If Theodore and the Rwandan community are allowed to remain in Zambia without the passport of the Rwandan Government   the outlook for them is good. A comprehensive 48 page “Strategic Framework for the local integration of former refugees in Zambia” was released by the UNHCR in January 2014. It outlines alternative legal status for former refugees, an integrated resettlement programme and support for refugee affected areas. Contractors are improving schools and clinics in selected areas where 10 hectare plots per household will be allocated under conditions to former refugees,   as well as to an equal number of Zambian farmers. The local integration process envisages improved roads, water points, electricity supply, legal courts, welfare centres, skills training centres and support for small businesses. Donor countries supporting the project so far are Canada, Japan, the US, Germany and Denmark.


The former Minister of Home Affairs, the Hon Edgar Lungu MP, who had promised Rwandan and Angolan refugees local integration in April 2013, addressed a large gathering of Rwandan former refugees in the Holy Cross Cathedral in Lusaka on 30th June, 2013, the day of the cessation of their refugee status. He said, “The most important thing is that we are not going to force repatriation. That must be very very clear.”   Rwandan former refugees who feel frustrated over delay in their local integration thank him for listening to them. They remain hopeful that with Government support they will continue to make Zambia their home.


The Rt Revd. John Osmers,

Assistant Anglican Bishop of Lusaka.


Email: [email protected].

Archbishop Mpundu’s Open Letter to GRZ