The Forgotten Rwandan Refugees in the DRC: A Call for Recognition and Action

On this World Refugee Day, June 20, 2024, the organization Jambo ASBL has voiced deep concerns about the ongoing neglect of Rwandan refugees living in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). This resounding silence surrounds a humanitarian crisis that has persisted for nearly three decades, affecting hundreds of thousands of people.

According to the latest data from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), about 207,249 registered Rwandan refugees live in the DRC. However, these figures do not reflect the true reality, as they exclude many stateless or unregistered individuals. These refugees, primarily Hutus who fled Rwanda after the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) took power in 1994, live in inhumane conditions, often victims of massacres and systematic violence perpetrated by the Rwandan army and rebel groups such as the M23.

The plight of these refugees remains largely ignored in international discussions and regional peace initiatives, such as the Nairobi process under the East African Community (EAC), the Luanda roadmap, or the UNHCR-led tripartite initiative for voluntary repatriation. These forums, while important, do not address the distress of these refugees, hindering any lasting and inclusive solution for the stabilization of eastern DRC.

One of the most striking contradictions is the official discourse from the Kigali regime, which claims that Rwandophones in the DRC are victims of an ongoing genocide. This rhetoric deliberately overlooks the fact that the majority of Rwandan refugees in the DRC are Hutus, forming one of the largest Rwandophone communities in the region. According to the UN Mapping Report, these refugees suffered serious crimes between 1993 and 2003, which could be classified as genocide against the Hutus if presented before a competent court.

The massive exodus of 1994, involving nearly two million people, has never truly ceased. Voluntary repatriation programs initiated by the UNHCR have had limited impact, with only 9,353 repatriations recorded to Rwanda over the past five years. Many of these repatriations were carried out under duress, further increasing the vulnerability of these populations.

It is crucial to note the glaring lack of specific humanitarian aid for these Rwandan refugees, who represent the majority of refugees in the DRC and the second largest population of UN-mandated refugees. In contrast, refugees from the Central African Republic, South Sudan, and Burundi receive significantly more international attention. This disparity in humanitarian aid is not only unjust but also dangerous, as it exacerbates tensions and prolongs the suffering of these forgotten populations.

Jambo ASBL, in collaboration with the All for Rwanda movement, calls for international recognition of this crisis. It is imperative to integrate the realities of Rwandan refugees into all peace and stabilization initiatives for the region. Only by addressing the deep-rooted political and humanitarian crisis can we hope for lasting pacification and stability in eastern DRC.

The international community must take immediate measures to alleviate the suffering of Rwandan refugees in the DRC and restore their dignity and fundamental rights. This involves a concerted action both on humanitarian and political fronts. Recognizing their situation, combined with concrete solutions for their protection and voluntary, dignified return to Rwanda, is essential to ending decades of suffering and marginalization.

The current situation of Rwandan refugees in the DRC is a poignant reminder of the long-lasting consequences of conflicts and destabilization policies. On this World Refugee Day, it is crucial to renew our commitment to these vulnerable populations and work together for a future where their rights and dignity are fully respected and protected.

Marie Odile Umutesi, Human Rights Coordinator at Jambo ASBL, reminds us that without immediate and concerted action, the tragedy of Rwandan refugees in the DRC will continue to be an indelible stain on the conscience of the international community. The time has come to turn words into actions and ensure a more just and humane future for all refugees.