Introduction

Uganda has a long history of refugee protection efforts. This can be traced to the 1940s, when the country hosted 7,000 Polish refugees fleeing the devastation of World War II (1939–1945). Currently, Uganda hosts over 1.5 million refugees due to the tumult in neighboring countries.1

Since October 2002, the Rwandan and Ugandan governments, along with the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), have been promoting the voluntary repatriation of (post-genocide) Rwandan refugees to their home country.2 There have been several tripartite agreements, joint communiqués, sensitization campaigns, as well as push factors like the ban on continued cultivation of land, reduction of food rations, and forced repatriations. Following the limited success of these strategies, there was a failed attempt by the Rwandan government to invoke the Cessation Clause3 of June 30, 2013,4 as refugees and the international human rights bodies claimed human rights violations in Rwanda. As part of the repatriation campaigns, visits were introduced by UNHCR and the governments of Uganda and Rwanda, which enabled refugees to visit their homeland before making a final decision to return. However, a considerable number of Rwandans remain in the Ugandan refugee settlements and are reluctant to return. This article highlights the impact of “Go-and-See, Come-and-Tell” visits on Rwandan refugees’ decision-making processes regarding repatriation.

The study focused on Rwandan refugees in the Nakivale refugee settlement in Uganda. The research team collected data from twenty purposively selected respondents, including potential Rwandan refugees “visit” participants, Rwandan refugees, and settlement officials. The latter included representatives from the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) of Uganda and the UNHCR, who facilitated the program. The study used in-depth key-informant interviews and focus group discussions, while also giving due attention to ethical considerations.

Impact of “Go-and-See, Come-and-Tell” Visits on Rwandan Refugees

An interviewee summarized the process: “We were briefed that we shall go to Rwanda to assess the prevailing conditions in our areas of origin, before deciding to take part in the voluntary repatriation process and come and tell others to return.”5 The researcher asked the refugees to explain their understanding of “go-and-see, come-and-tell” visits. The majority said that it is a UNHCR-facilitated process to enable Rwandan refugees to visit their ancestral home and then return to Uganda, with information to encourage fellow Rwandan refugees to repatriate.6

Following a tripartite agreement between Rwanda, Uganda, and the UNHCR, the authorities transported groups of Rwandan refugee representatives to Rwanda on “Go-and-See” visits from 2015 onward. UNHCR officials approached participants who consented to the visit. One respondent reiterated: “I was selected randomly to go [to Rwanda] with UNHCR in April 2017. It was terrifying news for me because my parents had never told us anything good about Rwanda. But I was happy to go and see my country of origin.”7 Most respondents said they were afraid to participate in the visits, but the UNHCR reassured them of their security.8

“Go-and-See” Visit to Rwanda

After their selection, participants were transported by UNHCR to the Katuna border, where another vehicle took them to Kigali. From Kigali, they were taken to Gabiro military barracks and Gishari police barracks to undergo patriotism training. They were taught civic education, Rwanda’s history, and Rwanda’s development process to date. Afterward, they traveled around various locations in Rwanda, including their ancestral homes, before returning to Kigali and then back to Uganda.9

Since the participants were divided into different groups, reports regarding their treatment during the trip varied: some reported being received well, while others were not. Many participants reported their fear of being hosted in the military and police training institutions. One respondent asked: “Can you feel at home when they are training you like a soldier? I was only afraid and not sure if we would return home [Nakivale].”10 They were interrogated about their relationship with the rebel groups based in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They were also asked whether they were willing to return to Rwanda. A youth from another group said they were questioned about their parents’ names, phone numbers, the number of siblings they had, youth involvement in rebel groups, and their perceptions of their home country.11 Another respondent was presented with pictures of individuals and asked to identify them, along with inquiries about their residency in Nakivale; he denied knowing them. “We were interrogated with a lot of questions, but we were also tactical in answering them.”12

Some respondents were unable to meet any of their relatives in Rwanda, while others did. As one participant said: “When you leave a place for a long time, everything changes. We did not find our original homes. Neither did we find our relatives.”13 However, another respondent met their uncle, grandmother, and other relatives: “They were happy to see me and to know that we are still alive. They would only comfortably talk to me in isolated places like the bush, for fear of being reported. My uncle intimated that whoever asks about my father, I should say that he died. . . I should not encourage refugees to return, as some have pending cases with Gacaca.”14

A youth representative shared that fellow youth in Rwanda asked for her phone number to help them travel to Uganda. She added: “Some followed up and came.”15 Overall, visit participants reported that they would not return because there is no home to return to. Not only is all the land occupied, but there is the possibility of imprisonment for some returnees due to pending cases in the Gacaca courts.

“Come and Tell”—Return to Nakivale Camp

Upon their return to Uganda, visit participants shared their experiences with fellow refugees. While they noted that Rwanda was relatively peaceful, they did not yet feel ready to return because some causes of their flight had not been abated. One visit participant noted: “We cannot trust the security [personnel] in Rwanda because we were told that some who returned were imprisoned, some disappeared, and others [were] killed.”16

While the Rwandan refugees have continuously chosen not to return, the Rwandan government says that there is no reason for their people to continue to live as refugees in exile, because of established peace and widespread security.17

Respondents reported that when they returned to Nakivale, they shared information through village meetings, updating their fellow refugees on everything they experienced in Rwanda. One visit participant was emphatic: “There wasn’t anything admirable to convince us to return to Rwanda—there is no food in the gardens, and we wonder what people eat. Here in Uganda, we [have] access to agricultural land. I do not think I can go back to Rwanda from the visit we made.”18

According to the respondents, the visit to Rwanda did not convince them to repatriate because the information gathered from relatives proved it was not safe yet. Interestingly, refugees in a group discussion indicated that they possess access to informal networks that provide information about Rwanda; they consider this a more reliable avenue for information. This was confirmed by a Rwandan refugee leader: “We cannot rely on this information from participants of “go-and-see” visits . . . after all, apart from being brainwashed in Rwanda’s training centers, there is nothing new they have brought on board. We get information about Rwanda on [a] daily basis, and we know what returnees face there.”19

Refugees develop sophisticated social networks in their settlement areas. They use these social networks to actively seek out reliable information—from informal and formal sources—to learn about what is happening back home. Despite repeated assurances of safety in Rwanda, most refugees rely on the information they receive from the informal networks, as they do not trust the formal sources of information.20

One refugee spoke forcefully about preferring death to forced repatriation: “I would rather die than return to Rwanda. For example, in 2009, as they forced us to go back, I was still at the reception center in Kabahinda. I jumped off the truck and broke my limbs. I thought I would die on [the] spot like my colleagues. It was better for me to die than return to Rwanda.”21 This is contrary to Article V of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) Convention, which states, “The essentially voluntary character of repatriation shall be respected in all cases and no refugee shall be repatriated against his will.”22 In addition, Article 33 of the 1951 Refugee Convention emphasizes the principle of non-refoulement, intended to protect refugees and asylum seekers against forcible return to a potentially hostile and dangerous environment in their home country.23

It is evident that the decision to repatriate is complex for refugees. It involves weighing the perceived attraction of returning home with remaining in exile as refugees.24 The repatriation decision-making process requires refugees to consider the costs and the benefits of their decision—continued exile, resettlement to a third country, or returning home.

Ending the Rwandan Refugee Cycle: Alternative Solutions

Of the three durable solutions, Rwandan refugees saw resettlement to a third country as their best alternative. Their resistance to repatriation was based on their fear of human rights violations in Rwanda. However, they acknowledged a more immediate dilemma: local integration is not an entirely safe option either, as some refugees have been abducted, even killed, in Uganda. One respondent commented: “Being close to the border, we are not secure at all. Resettlement to other countries far from Rwanda will work for us.”25

Unlike my PhD research between 2009 and 2014, where Rwandan refugees preferred local integration and naturalization as their perceived durable solution because of unfavorable return conditions back home, the interviews conducted in 2022 and 2023 indicate that third-country resettlement is what they ultimately long for. Their desire is fueled by the recent promotion of resettlement for some nationalities like Somalis and Congolese, which created widespread awareness among refugees. However, the Rwandan refugees may not be eligible since their country desires the return of its people.

Conclusion

The UNHCR and Ugandan officials facilitated “Go-and-See, Come-and-Tell” visits for Rwandan refugees to travel to Rwanda, assess the environment, and encourage fellow refugees to return. However, Rwandan refugees remain reluctant to return because of perceived human rights violations in Rwanda. Instead, they express their preference for third-country resettlement or remaining in Uganda. There is a need to prioritize and promote voluntary repatriation by ensuring a safe environment in Rwanda, including housing and property restitution means and engaging in peace and reconciliation activities. Uganda also ought to consider naturalization of refugees who have lived there for over a decade, as the 2006 Refugee Act and 2010 Refugee Regulations allow for integration of refugees within the host communities.

Notes

  1. Sarah Vancluysen, Sharing the Little There Is: Towards a Durable Refugee-Host Relationship in Northern Uganda, IOB Discussion Papers 2021.05 (Universiteit Antwerpen, Institute of Development Policy, 2021), https://ideas.repec.org/p/iob/dpaper/202105.html; Samuel Opono and Frank Ahimbisibwe, “Attitudes of Refugees Towards Integration: The Experience of South Sudanese Refugees in Adjumani District in Uganda,” Society 60 (June 2023): 333–44, https://doi.org/10.1007/s12115-023-00858-5; Cleophas Karooma, Clementia Neema, Eria Serwajja, Veronica Nakijoba, Sophie Withaeckx, and Gily Coene, “Protractedness? A Driver to Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (SGBV) among Refugees in Nakivale Refugee Settlement, Southwestern Uganda,” Afriche e Orienti 25, no. 1 (2022): 186–206, https://researchportal.vub.be/en/publications/protractedness-a-driver-to-sexual-and-gender-based-violence-sgbv-.
  2. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and International Organization for Migration, Implementation of the Comprehensive Strategy for the Rwandan Refugee Situation, Including UNHCR’s Recommendations on the Applicability of the “Ceased Circumstances” Cessation Clauses (UNHCR, December 30, 2011), https://www.refworld.org/pdfid/4f33a1642.pdf.
  3. Article 1C of the 1951 Convention
  4. Cleophas Karooma, Rwandan Refugees in Southwestern Uganda: Their Attitudes and Responses to Repatriation 1994–2012 (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 2017).
  5. Interview, male, 33, Nakivale, January 2023.
  6. Focus group discussion, Nakivale, December 2022.
  7. Interview, female youth, 25 years, Nakivale, December 2022.
  8. Interview, OPM Official, Nakivale, January 2023.
  9. Focus group discussion, Nakivale, December 2022.
  10. Interview, male, 43, Nakivale January 2023
  11. Interview, male youth, 23, Nakivale, January 2023
  12. Interview, female, 41 years, Nakivale, January 2023.
  13. Interview, male, 50 years, Nakivale, January 2023.
  14. Interview, male, 32 years, Nakivale, December 2023.
  15. Interview, female, 27 years, Nakivale, January 2023.
  16.  Interview, male, 45, years, Nakivale, December 2022.
  17. Ministry of Disaster Management and Refugee Affairs, Rwanda (MIDIMAR), official, 2012.
  18.  Interview, female, 38 years, Nakivale, January 2023.
  19. Interview, Rwandan refugee leader, Nakivale, January 2023.
  20. Cleophas Karooma, Reluctant to Return? The Primacy of Social Networks in the Repatriation of Rwandan Refugees in Uganda, Working Paper Series No. 103 (Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford, August 2014), https://www.rsc.ox.ac.uk/files/files-1/wp103-reluctant-to-return-2014.pdf; Cleophas Karooma, “Where Do We Belong: Rwanda or Uganda? The Conceptualization of ‘Home’ by the Rwandan Refugees in Uganda,” Journal of Modern Education Review 7, no. 6 (June 2017): 413–28, http://www.academicstar.us/UploadFile/Picture/2017-11/2017112384538959.pdf.
  21. Interview, male, 48 years, Nakivale, December 2022.
  22. Organisation of African Unity, Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa, Article 5: Voluntary Repatriation (Addis Ababa, Ethiopia: OAU, 1969), https://au.int/sites/default/files/treaties/36400-treaty-0005_-_oau_convention_governing_the_specific_aspects_of_refugee_problems_in_africa_e.pdf.
  23. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (New York: United Nations Human Rights Office, 1951), https://www.ohchr.org/en/instruments-mechanisms/instruments/convention-relating-status-refugees.
  24. Jeff Crisp and Katy Long, “Safe and Voluntary Refugee Repatriation: From Principle to Practice,” Journal on Migration and Human Security 4, no. 3 (2016): 141–47, https://doi.org/10.1177/233150241600400305.
  25. Focus group discussion, Nakivale, December 2022.