Congolese Refugees in Rwanda: Two Years of Silence, Fear and Terror?

  1. Claiming Refugees’ Basic Rights

Two years to the day, on 22nd February 2018, Congolese refugees in Kiziba camp were brutally killed by security forces. Kiziba refugee camps is in Western Rwanda, Karongi District. It was established since 1996 up to now and shelters mostly Congolese who have fled their homes due to recurring wars in Eastern Congo; Kivu Provinces. Kivus is a conflict prone region since decades and the causes of its volatility can be summarized in ethnic discrimination, the dominance of armed groups (locals and foreign) and the absence of state authority. More than 17,000 refugees are the estimated number of people who have been living in the Kiziba camp for roughly 20 years ago. Besides experiencing trauma during refugee’s long journey from back home to refugee camps, these have been challenged by an interference of political decisions from Rwandan officials aiming to have a control over them.

As per their claims, Congolese refugees in Rwanda have discriminated on labor market, an imbalance between refugees and nationals in terms of job opportunities within the camp; refugees were characterized by unclear status specifically in terms of identification documents. ; poor health services that lead to chronicle diseases while access to health facilities had been quite discriminatory and limited to refugees. They also have claiming to access decent education system. As stated by refugees’ representatives, young refugees were being recruited into the army and police by governmental officials. More specifically, refugees were challenged by standard living that was deteriorating. Quite alarmingly, refugees were obliged to survive with $0.2 per day. In addition, due to maneuvers around refugees, they suspected to integrated by force into the Rwandan society via what is known as Ubudehe. Subsequently, refugees entered into discussion with UNCHR and state officials to raise concerns over their conditions. Due to these challenges and declining conditions, refugees protested by demanding facilitation to return in Congo, their home country. It is during this demonstration that innocent refugees were killed and since then, many are still in prison fearing for their future while others have limited means to claim again their rights including their return. The following is succession of events that led to 2018 crisis: 

  1. Chronological Events

Debate of state officials’ interference around refugees’ affairs has been going on for a while. The executive committee was slightly effective, and an election was organized by mid-2017. From this election, new candidates managed to secure key position among the executive committee. It was expected that the new team would voice for the interests of refugees. Consequently, officials in the camp expressed their disagreement until one of the former members of the executive committee, Patrick Bimenyimana was jailed, said sources in the camp.  Since then, a stalemate went on as the state’s representatives in the camp promised to organize another election in which other candidates will be elected. 

Consequently, on 5th January 2018, the new executive committee appointed by 2017 wrote a letter to the UNHCR Geneva requesting them to step in and facilitate refugees to go back in their country instead of dying of hunger in Rwanda. The situation was going harder due to the insufficient amount of ration. On 7th February 2018, a meeting is organized in Kigali (Convention Center) to discuss a long plan of integrating refugees into the Rwandan structures known Ubudehe. During the meeting, Kiziba executive committee was represented by one member though they seem to have been observing. They claimed to have been refused opportunity to express their views during the meeting. Few days later, Kiziba executive committee wrote another letter to the UNCHR and the Government of Rwanda to protest against such integration. They rather suggested to be repatriated.

Following this move, the Ministry of Disaster Management and refuges affairs tried to convince refugees though an organized meeting on 9th February 2018. During the meeting organized by the Camp manager (official from the Disaster Ministry), refugees have categorically refused to adhere to this option. Three days later, the camp manager through his mobile phone invited Kiziba’s executive committee to meet. Members of the executive committee refused due to fear of being arrested or forced to accept any offer. More specifically, this is how Bimenyimana Patrick was arrested. Subsequent to this refusal, rumors circulated that the police would intervene in case any demonstration is organized on the side of refugees.

On 16th February 2018, the general meeting of all refugees was called by the chairperson of the executive committee. The chairperson aimed to report the conclusion of Kigali Convention Center’s meeting held on 8th Feb 2018. The Kigali’s meeting intended to convince refugees to accept the integration into the Rwandan structures of Ubudehe. From the general meeting of 16th Feb 2018, refugees resolved to return Congo by 20th Feb 2018.

On 20th Feb 2018 at 5.00 AM, refugees departed from Kiziba towards DRC. On their way, they were stopped by security services, mainly under police uniform. As security personnel failed to convince refugees, they started shooting on refugees and 3 refugees were wounded. Conseuently, refugees fearing their safety, decided to head to the UNHCR office in Karongi. The purpose was to seek protection as the situation was getting tense due to the intervention of the military. Next to the UNCHR Office in Karongi, refugees spent 3 days surrounded by policemen and army soldiers. Surrounded by military soldiers, on 22nd Feb 2018 (4PM), police and the army started shooting on refugees. At the same time, those who did not move outside of the camp were too shot. Following the shooting, official source claims that between 8-12 people were killed (some in Karongi while others in Kiziba camp). Nonetheless, some sources keep claiming that the shooting has culminated around three dozen of refugees killed. Some were killed due to their injuries while the whereabouts of some is possibly unknown. 

The next day, a delegation from Geneva was forced to interrupt their meeting with refugees while trying to enquire for the situation and how it started. Following the stalemate that emerges from these incidents, hundreds of policemen were brought to surround the camp on 19th Avril 2018. Heavily armed, these soldiers had a mission of arresting specifically embers of the executive committee and other opinions leaders. Two weeks later, the armed men entered by force in the refugee camp by shooting and 3 people were gain killed (2nd May 2018); there followed the demise of the executive committee. A new team was then appointed and largely under the tougher control of state officials.

  1. Arrest, Jail and Unfair Prosecution?

When policemen and security services forced refugee camp fences, Congolese refugees in Kiziba started everyone to fend for herself. More than 75 people were jailed for roughly a year without any fair process of prosecution. Had some members of the executive committee managed to flee? The fac is some are in jail in Rwanda and their fate remains unpredictable. There are concerns over whose whereabouts is yet unknown. Since last year, there has been a type of trial which in large remains questionable. Through this form of masquerade, 16 people were acquitted; 9 refugees sentenced to 7 years; 5 on 3 years conditional release; while 23 sentenced to 5 years. One of these refugees who have been vocal critique of this policy of silencing refugees has been sentenced to 15 years in prison. There are yet few others (5) waiting to prosecution. No one knows why these Congolese had treated as such.

The international community, the UNCHR and other international organizations have likely decided to not touch this hot debate (criticizing Kigali and the decision to jail refugees). Rwanda is taking a position of the judge and defendant! Strikingly, the Congolese state has remained silent for approximately two years as if these were citizens of the paradise or the “no man’s land”. Many voices are needed to support these refugees whose fate remains into the hands of any single state while they should be protected by Human Rights Convention.

Therefore, one would recommend that:

  • the government of Rwanda must immediately release all prisoners and establish a truth over these incidents that culminated into killing of refuge;
  • Rwandan government to facilitate an investigation in this crisis and must hold accountable anyone who had participated into the killings of refugees;
  • Locate those who are yet missing;
  • The UNHCR takes its responsibilities of protecting refugees;
  • The Congolese Government to take all necessary measures to repatriate these refugees in their home country;
  • The pending issue of subsistence means must be tackled.                                                   

    NTANYOMA R. Delphin

    PhD Researcher in Conflict Economics

    The Institute of Social Studies/

    Erasmus University Rotterdam





About admin 415 Articles
PhD & Visiting researcher @ErasmusUnivRotterdam/Institute of Social Studies (ISS). Interest: Microeconomic Analysis of Violent Conflict, Genocide Studies and violence targeting minority groups. Congolese, blogger advocating for Equitable Redistribution of Ressources & national wealth as well as & #Justice4All #DRC. On top of that, I'm proud of being a "villageois"

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