The following interview was done by Merveille Kakule Saliboko, a member of the Young Peace Journalists and a peace reporter based in Butembo, North Kivu, in eastern DRC.
Loamba Moke, human rights defender in Congo-Brazza: “The situation of Rwandan refugees in Congo is ambiguous”.
After the genocide of Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994 (800,000 deaths among the Tutsi minority and moderate Hutu), a few thousand Rwandans had taken refuge in the Congo, a small country in Central Africa of about 5 million inhabitants after crossed the Democratic Republic of Congo. They are now scattered in many parts of the country and depend on agropastoral activities or petty trading. On them hangs the threat of statelessness due to the cessation of refugee status since December 31, 2017.
To better understand the situation, Mr. Loamba Moke, President of the Association of Human Rights and the Prison System (ADHUC), a civil society organization from Congo-Brazza, is online from Brazzaville. Interview with Merveille Kakule Saliboko, one of the Young Peace Journalists …
Mr. Loamba Moke, in mid-January, you published a statement in which you say that the Prime Minister of Congo-Brazza, Mr. Clement Mouamba, “just planned the genocide of the 8,460 Rwandan refugees” in the Congo. Today, how could we call these people? Refugees or migrants?
You are right to ask this question which is very delicate. As a human rights defender myself, I find it difficult to put an exact answer, to say what these non-exempt Rwandan refugees are becoming. Have they become migrants, stateless people? This is a very important question. Since the declaration of Prime Minister Clement Mouamba, the applicability of the conventions that Congo and Rwanda have had to sign internally, these conventions violate copiously and correctly the regional and international conventions. So, today, the situation Rwandan refugees in Congo is an ambiguous situation. We do not know which category to put these Rwandan refugees.
So, the Prime Minister’s statement of January 10, 2018 refers to the cessation of refugee status clause. What is the result of this statement?
After the Prime Minister’s statement, there were no effects of applicability. In principle, what we were waiting for was to see what the government should do to ask what the methodology is, what the means are … In fact, in the internal convention signed between the Congo and Rwanda, it is said that refugees who refused to go home, would be sentenced, arrested, extradited. You see that extraditing 8,460 refugees is not easy now to arrest all these people. To this day, the only difficulty that Rwandan refugees face is that they have no more papers, they cannot do any activities and therefore they are ransomed by the police of our country. This is a situation of violation of human rights, the rights of these Rwandan refugees.
Before this clause of cessation of refugee status, before this statement by Prime Minister Clement Mouamba, how did these Rwandan refugees live on Congolese soil?
They have been here in Congo for 20 years. There have been mixed marriages, some are farming, others are trading … They were already fully integrated in Congolese society. But unfortunately, today, they live the opposite of this integration that they had lived for nearly 20 years in Congolese society.
Has the status of these people changed in their daily lives? Are these people afraid to go out and not be arrested by the security services?
Exactly, they are arrested. So far, they only have their refugee cards running until December 31, 2017. And when the police arrest them, looking at who is already out of date, the policemen kidnap them, either arrested in police stations. They are asphyxiated. It’s hard to call this life a secret life. We call on the Congolese government to find a durable solution quickly.
Do you have any idea how many Rwandan refugees would be in Congolese prisons because they were arrested by the police because of the Prime Minister’s statement?
You know, there is no government information on the situation. The police act in their own way. The police are calling these Rwandan refugees and when they are arrested, at some point, if they have some money, they give. Sometimes they choose not to go to the prison and live in hiding. We are preparing a report of the reality on the ground, to describe in detail the situation.
Have there ever been voluntary returns of Rwandan refugees to their country of origin?
There were not many people; it’s at most twenty. We know the number of refugees who are not exempt, the 8,460. Moreover, those who have returned to Rwanda do not exceed twenty. Most of them remained in Congo because for them peace is not yet effective at the level of Rwanda.
In your press release, you ask yourself several questions about the reasons behind Prime Minister Clément Mouamba’s statement. What do you think would have motivated the Congolese prime minister?
The motivation is very simple. If you read our memorandum published in February 2017, in this memorandum, we showed what agreements the Congo had already signed with Rwanda, through their foreign affairs ministries. The Prime Minister is just applying these ten conventions. In one of these documents, it is said that when Rwandan refugees refuse to go home, the Congo has the obligation to arrest them and extradite them. This is well stated in the convention signed under the assistance of UNHCR, the United Nations High Council for Refugees. Has there been a thorough analysis to see how far more than 8,460 people can be extradited to their country? I do not know how they will proceed …
On October 2, 2015, a ministerial meeting on the Global Solutions Strategy for Rwandan Refugees took place in Geneva at UNHCR Headquarters. About voluntary repatriation, the Rwandan Government pledged on that day to “guarantee the safe and dignified return and reintegration of all refugees and take all necessary measures to that end”. Was this commitment not enough to convince refugees to return to Rwanda?
You know it’s a problem of the person. Every person has his rights. We have an obligation to respect the rights of each person. Only these people can tell us the reality. They are Rwandans, they lived in their country. Now that their country is developed, why do not they want to go back? That is what justifies events because in political law there is voluntary return, local integration and resettlement. But in Congo, the part of resettlement was obstructed, and voluntary return and local integration were kept. For us, we first look at the individual. What does the individual think of himself? Is he reassured? It’s not a question of what the rulers do. A good part of refugees does not want to leave because they do not have the security guarantee. We must analyse those people who have lived in Rwanda, who have lived through the war, who have fled their country and who are on Congolese territory. They have rights that UNHCR must respect, as well as Rwanda and Congo. Did they respect the rights of refugees? Now, if they are turned back, expelled, their rights are not respected. You know that the Rwandans who are in Congo have memoranda, which they sent to the head of state explaining their non-return. That’s it but their explanations were not considered.
The same meeting of 2 October 2015 also talks about local integration. The “commitment of the participants to redouble their efforts to facilitate the possibilities of local integration for those who wish to remain in the country of asylum”. What has been done in this way?
Local integration took place in 2006 in Congo. Because the Congo and Rwanda, in their conventions, it is said somewhere that Rwandan refugees in Congo-Brazza must withdraw the passports at the level of the chancery, at the embassy of Rwanda in the Congo. These people still consider themselves refugees. And the 1961 convention says that when a refugee agrees to take a document from his country such as a passport, that person totally loses his refugee status. This is an obstacle for Rwandan refugees. The Rwandan and Congolese governments have put in place this strategy for refugees to withdraw their passports to achieve local integration. But, dear journalist, the Rwandan refugees arrived in Brazzaville without any documents because they were in a situation of war. And when they arrived in Congo, they were granted a collective status. UNHCR has kept them for 20 years under this collective status. UNHCR could, after two years, examine case by case and determine who should be and who should not be refugees. UNHCR waited 20 years to ask these refugees to build files to have individual refugee status. This means that there has been a lack of documents everywhere in the refugee camp in our country.
Another commitment that day was the “need to prevent former refugees from finding themselves without legal status or at risk of becoming stateless and agree to take all possible measures, including the exploration of the acquisition of citizenship, to avoid such a situation “. Are there any progress towards the acquisition of Congolese citizenship for these Rwandan refugees?
We are putting in place a strategy because you know that people have spent 20 years in Congo, they have had children in this country. And these children are at university, in high schools, in colleges. These children live in the same camps with their parents. However, our national law states that at 18 you can have nationality. It is a possibility for us to see these children who cannot go to Rwanda but who can acquire nationality, which could arrange their parents. This is an approach that ADHUC is putting in place today.
What is the status of these children born of mixed marriages? I imagine they are torn between the possibility of staying in Congo with their Congolese parents or returning to Rwanda with Rwandan parents …
In principle, even Rwandan children, born to Rwandan parents on Congolese soil, can apply for Congolese citizenship at 18 years of age. That, there are not so many problems. Now, we call on the Congolese government to tap into wisdom and find a lasting solution. We told the United Nations to find a lasting solution. The durable solution is neither forced repatriation nor extradition. I believe that the Congolese government is seeking a solution and I hope that the durable solution will be found to respond to the lamentations, tears and worries of the refugees. I am tempted to say that a political solution is needed at this time.
When and how did these Rwandan refugees arrive in Congo-Brazzaville, more than 2,000 kilometers from their native Rwanda?
You know that the DRC is border with Congo, and the DRC borders Rwanda. After the Rwandan genocide, many refugees found themselves in the DRC. When the Kigali power pursued them into the DRC’s forests, they crossed this vast country. We recorded unaccompanied children, those who lost their parents on the way but there was African solidarity, Bantu solidarity and we brought them to Brazzaville. See! Even these children are considered as people who must go back to Rwanda. They were chased towards the DRC, from where they were chased again in the forests and they found themselves in Congo crossing the Congo river to meet in the northern departments, in Ikolela and Ikobo. Today, they are still pursued.
According to the AFP (Agence France Presse), before the deadline of December 31, only 104 Rwandan refugees were repatriated voluntarily in their country, eighteen have sought local integration and 802 have benefited from the exemption until in 2020. The remaining 8,460 are without status.
Merveille Kakule Saliboko is a peace reporter based in Butembo, North Kivu, in eastern DRC. In May 2016, he won the Peace Journalism Award in North Kivu, a prize set up by AJVPD Tupashe Amani in collaboration with MONUSCO. His award-winning article, “l’agriculture contre la guerre”, published in Afrique Agriculture in March 2016, speaks of displaced people fleeing the massacres taking place in the city and territory of Beni, North Kivu, and who, in waiting for the return of peace in their home environment, engage in agriculture in the city of Butembo. With Pax Christi International, Merveille’s ambition is to be the bard of peace.