The Great Lakes Refugee Crisis in 1994


When million and a half people were massacred in April 1994, various factors behind origins of Great Lakes Refugee crisis arise which included Rwandan crisis. Other factors that contributed to this horrendous event are political and social inefficiencies in the light of those ineffective approaches of humanitarians, that lacked insufficient strategic considerations to deal with the situation (Ogletree, 2004). This paper will seek and highlight some of the reasons and facts behind a catastrophic genocide where the Rwandan refugee crisis never sought a solution to be glossed over in historical and apolitical terms. The role of UNHCR will be discussed in the light of critical concerns where it remained unable to provide asylum in the long run.

Many believe that the human suffering of the genocide was the overwhelming consequence of the failure to contain the escalation of the Rwandan war. In this context it surpasses all other consequences among which the first in chronological terms was the humanitarian crisis produced by the genocide. This crisis generated an overwhelming response from the international relief system as a result of which the international relief organisations flooded into Rwanda to cure at least some portion of the misery.

The UN provided the reinforcements to UNAMIR that had not been extroverted during the genocide itself and as a result in only first five months of the response, more than $1.2 billion dollars were spent as a response to the humanitarian aftermath of the genocide (Jones 2001, p. 136). Later when the relief communities were criticised for their help, they remained unable to cope up with the desired response and resulted in humanitarian containment.

Political Realities behind Genocide

Background analysis for ethnonationalism and genocide that left the lives of over million Rwandan people at stake, when seen in a historical context elaborates the result of the monopoly over power and political struggle. The political situation in Rwanda deteriorated with the passage of time and got worst in the late 1980s after witnessing a continuous era of northern Hutu political and economic dominance. The people in the south illustrate their frustration and anger with the Habyarimana regime and its associated political party, the MRND.

However, after getting pressure from a French-supported democratisation initiative to open the country to multi-arty democracy, several opposition parties from southern and central Rwanda attempted to solve the persisting problem of thousands of Tutsi refugees living outside the country. While the refugee groups were seeking to return on the part of the Rwandan government, despite conducting negotiations with the government officials, no result was accomplished on the questions of Rwandan citizenship and eventual repatriation.

These threats on one hand monopolised overpower where the Habyarimana regime responded in a positive manner to what was established by Kayibanda, on the other hand in 1989 it showed animosity against Tutsi. However in 1990, after Habyarimana and MRND confronted opposition from Rwandan politicians on behalf of the claim that the Rwandan regime was close to collapse, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) which composed largely of Rwandan apostates from the Ugandan Army, invaded Rwanda from Uganda (Taylor 1999, p. 47). Such a miscalculation left them dubious when southern Hutus sidestepped by claiming a higher order of priority and defeated the new Tutsi threat on their part.

After the RPF was invaded in 1990, there were organised local massacres of Rwandan Tutsi which were conducted by local MRND officials. By 1992 RPF was capable enough to manage to capture and administer portions of northern Rwanda. At that time what supported and escorted the Habyarimana and Rwanda from suffering a defeat was the material support of French troops. RPF diplomatically conducted negotiations with the Rwandan government and as a result to the direct negotiations, agreed to a ceasefire in 1992. But again took offensive measures in 1993 and continued localised massacres of Rwandan Tutsi.

Taylor mentions (1999, p. 49) that even before being stopped by French artillery and Rwandan Government Forces, the RPF violated within 25 km of the capital city where thousands of northern Rwandan fled their homes in the wake of the offensive and eventually ended up in central Rwandan camps for the internally displaced. At that time the UNHCR and the International Red Cross intervened to help out as best they could to their needs.

When in 1993 after the Rwandan government signed a peace agreement with the RPF, MRND got displeased and in 1994 broke out occasional violence that created an atmosphere of tension and disorder. Later, the RPF pursued a slow but persistent campaign against the Rwandan Government Forces where the RPF acquired control over a devastated country where the remaining population supported the RPF. Followed by instability, the international community conducted aid support to feed and protect Rwandan Hutu refugees in eastern Zaire and in fact saved many from cholera and starvation.

Ineffectiveness of Humanitarian Mechanisms

Many authors declare the inefficiency of humanitarian assistance not as among reasons but, among consequences of the genocide. What one can argue in a situation of latent conflict, where political polarisation in the form of acute conflict prevents any type of intervention, whether be it in the form of humanitarian activities or of development cooperation.

This assumption many believe that humanitarian agencies played no significant role in the Rwandan ongoing conflicts to which the triggering of 1994 genocide in the whole of the Great Lakes region is evidence of misunderstanding, for the supporting agencies perceived that they were involved in a situation of seeking ultimate solution to the problem, and to which genocide was the only agenda for understanding Rwandan realities.

After the genocide, various developmental organisations including the UN agencies and NGOs were called upon to ‘analyse’ the Rwandan tragedy. Therefore, the development aid inclusive of the huge amount of funds not only lent stability to the Rwandan regime over decades, but they also helped to ‘sponsor’ the genocide. Critics claim that Rwanda which once known as the ‘East African Switzerland’ seemed ideal to suit the testing ground for the development agencies for the new agrarian development ideology and for the fight against ‘overpopulation’ (Scherrer 2002, p. 171).

No doubt the UNHCR along with other non-governmental organisations provided humanitarian assistance to the refugees of the Great Lakes since the set up of camps in 1994. But evidence reveals that with the passage of time from food rations to long term humanitarian assistance, every aid was cut down (Refugee Crisis, 2009). This is justified by some of the UNHCR officials in the manner in which they realise that many of the refugees were reluctant to leave the camps for the reason they were leading a more comfortable life there than they could in Rwanda or Burundi.

With the assistance of EU international development, the interrelated civil and state conflicts in the Great Lakes have been analysed in the light of developing regional frameworks that through peace building conferences aims to initiate a process that will help to alleviate the cycle of conflicts in the whole region. These conferences took place after April 1994 and focused on four areas to ensure security, democracy, economic development, and humanitarian issues (Zachariah, 2004).

The criticism Zachariah (2004) points out to this approach provokes domestic problems pertaining to issues of governance. Through this democracy and security are indirectly affected that regional actors cannot control. Many argue that in the absence of any vigorous sub-regional organisation, the Great Lakes would become institutionally homeless. Moreover, what critics claim is that regional institutions cannot be built on the grounds of dispute. This suggests that the architectural foundations for building a secure mechanism in the region are nation-states, not international actors.

Escorting towards ineffective Refugee Protection

As a result of the state internal conflicts, today the international refugee protection regime to UNHCR has grown from a few million to 22 million (Lubbers, 2002). What critics of UNHCR authorise to elucidate is the interests of asylum states in reducing refugee influxes. However, in the case of Great Lakes UNHCR hold evidence of the asylum state confederacy which has only resulted in increasing the UNHCR’s budget more than doubled in the years immediately after the conflicts of 1994.

One cannot ignore the political realities behind the limited capacity of the UNHCR to influence outcomes or to ensure that states fulfill their international responsibilities because UNHCR today is merely doing what the international community wants. That is a billion dollar budget that can only be justified as the approval of the direction in which the donor indicates the desire to keep refugees away from their homes (Nicholson & Twomey 1999, p. 244). It is neither a matter of spending or not spending money in the Great Lakes region, nor is unlikely to have any effect on extra continental movements because other strategic interests and financial dimension carries weight. How UNHCR can continue with the assistance of shelter and protection when UNHCR itself is dependent on voluntary contributions?

In the Great Lakes Region the relationship between protection and asylum never worked out as it was expected to work. This has some theoretical issues to understand that include the perception that international protection reflects the convergence of humanitarian and political interests which leaves little room for principle. With such a precarious situation of armed settlements, UNHCR in southern Africa was under pressure from interested parties to turn a blind eye to guerrillas and freedom fighters among the civilian refugee population. Under such pressure fighters who were killed or captured with UNHCR medical and food packs in their bags led the camps became lethal military targets, resulted in hundreds and thousands of civilian death (Nicholson & Twomey 1999, p. 229).

UNHCR and large scale relief programs in Rwanda

No doubt the UNHCR was considered synonymous with large-scale international relief programs to victims of armed conflict and ethnic cleansing. Initially they were not confronted to critical pressure where success and failure of any aid were judged solely on the basis of technical standards of aid delivery and in fulfilling the material needs of refugees and vulnerable populations. With the new humanitarian emergencies the UNHCR’s core role alleviated in affording protection where they also compromised its scope and effectiveness as refugee crises became more intractable.

The Great Lakes witnessed the same attitude from the UNHCR and other humanitarian actors embedded in highly militarised and politicised situations. Loescher (2001, p. 15) points out that critics regarding to the former Zaire often claim that the UNHCR exacerbated the situation by providing assistance to militants in the camps, this continued to contribute towards a series of even greater humanitarian crises which the world witnessed in the long run.

When the US realised that the UNHCR’s personal interest in the resettlement and integration of Tutsi refugees have provided it with a reason to legitimise for informally approaching both the sending and host countries i.e., Rwanda and Burundi. US politically found himself in a perplexing condition to involve the UNHCR directly in this problem and instead of directly intervening with the governments, relied on the UN Secretary-General to respond to the breakdown in security in the region by seeking a political solution in order to stabilise the position of the Rwandan refugees in Burundi.

At this moment one can say that Rwandan refugee crisis remained unable to capture sufficient political will among UN member states to address the situation and thus, no attention was devoted to finding a political solution for the problem between Tutsi and Hutu that would have permitted a repatriation of the refugees. What political mistakes were committed was the inefficiency on behalf of the international community to provide sufficient funds to host countries to promote stability and local settlement of refugees. These emerged at the cost of a renewed genocide in the Great Lakes region of Africa after 30 years.

Security problems in the Great Lakes Crisis

The Great Lakes Crisis provoke the problem of security and enforced the UNHCR to subcontract the Zaire government to provide a contingent of selected troops to provide security in the camps. This arrangement was initially appreciated and seemed like a significant step to stabilise the camps and brought a degree of security to the aid workers but later it proved to be a fatally flawed decision that convinced the government in Rwanda that the camps had to be overrun.

This was due to the reason that the UNHCR despite communicating and negotiating with the government regarding the camps remained unable to convince the Zairian forces to arrest the former Hutu leaders who continued to intimidate the refugees. On the other hand the Zairian forces did not bother to halt their flow of arms to the genocides or cross-border incursions into Rwanda. What could have been done in a situation, when the Hutu rebels in the camps had full support of the then President of Zaire who left no occasion of overthrowing the Tutsi government in Rwanda and the return to power of the exiled Hutus (Loescher 2001, p. 310).

The Rwandan government instead of listening to what UNHCR suggests, accused UNHCR of supporting the genocides and their sponsor and warned that the agency’s incapacity to regain political and military control of the camps would enable the Hutu army in exile to launch a new invasion.

Instead of separating the two extremist forces of Hutu and combatants from Hutu civilians in the refugee camps, the UNHCR along with 100 other NGOs continued to feed the refugees and the Hutu forces (Loescher 2001, p. 310).

Being among one of the largest humanitarian operations so far conducted in the world which cost more than one million dollars a day, the UNHCR took latent steps to encourage voluntary repatriation through cross-border visits and an information campaign designed to counter propaganda from the former Hutu leaders declaring returnees would be killed. Militant Hutus took advantage of this situation and discouraged returns by intimidating those who wished to repatriate. Such circumstances deteriorated human rights scenario inside Rwanda while making it extremely difficult to cope up with the widespread fear among refugees of arbitrary arrest and retribution upon return to Rwanda.

A UNHCR report carried out in September 1994 had asserted against the practice of inhumanity that continued to be carried out against Hutus in parts of Rwanda, as a result huge massacre was followed by Rwandan forces while Kibeho camp was closed (Loescher 2001, p. 310). What made the situation worst was the fact that the massacre was carried out in the presence of UNAMIR troops who were commissioned to contribute for bringing security and protection to the internally displaced persons.

The year 1996 brought political instability in the Great Lakes region when Tutsi power in Burundi escorted the region towards violence between Hutus and Tutsis and witnessed the death of tens of thousands of people. It was by the mid of 1996 that regional pressure built up a platform for seeking a military solution to the security problem posed to Rwanda by the Hutu refugee camps. Hutu guerrillas conducted their operations in larger groups and practiced attacking local officials and Tutsi civilians inside Rwanda.

At that time Kigali government took a measure to eliminate this source of danger by alleviating the camps, which resulted in a conflict broke out in the end of the 1996 in which the Zaire between the Zairian army and the Tutsi known as the Banyamulenge rebellion, gave Rwanda the opportunity to attack the Hutu refugee camps and to destroy the power base of the Hutu.

It was when Zaire camps were attacked, the UNHCR along with its partner agencies postponed all their operations while immediately evacuating their expatriate staff. During the course of action, thousands of Hutu militia and refugees were killed while thousands dispersed in all directions across North Zaire and South Kivu. Such a horrendous destruction of the camps set off a massive return of some 500,000 refugees into Rwanda.

However, while the return home of refugees from Zaire encouraged Tanzania to take the initiative to force the repatriation of Rwandan refugees on its soil. Tanzania proclaimed its intention to return all Rwandan and Burundian refugees. To this date UNHCR has been severely criticised for the conspicuous fate of the missing refugees that despite monitoring by both the UNHCR and the UN Human Rights Field Operation in Rwanda, thousands of the returnees from Burundi, Tanzania, and Zaire were confined.

Black & Koser (1999, p. 169) denotes that as long as the gruesome fate of the missing refugees remains unsolved and unexplained, it will be difficult to share in some hope that the multiple traumas of the Rwanda Crisis might have a positive outcome in the future.

Work Cited

Black Richard & Koser Khalid. The End of the Refugee Cycle?Refugee Repatriation and Reconstruction: Berghahn Books: Oxford, 1999.

Jones D. Bruce. Peacemaking in Rwanda: The Dynamics of Failure: Lynne Rienner: Boulder, CO, 2001.

Loescher, Gil. The UNHCR and World Politics: A Perilous Path: Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2001.

Lubbers, Ruud. “Asylum for All: Refugee Protection in the 21st Century”. Harvard International Review. (2002). 24(1): 60.

Nicholson Frances & Twomey Patrick. Refugee Rights and Realities: Evolving International Concepts and Regimes: Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, England. 1999.

Ogletree, Aaron Peron. “Origins of Rwandan Genocide”. The Western Journal of Black Studies. (2004). 28(2): 397.

“Refugee Crisis, 2009” Web.

Scherrer P. Christian. Genocide and Crisis in Central Africa: Conflict Roots, Mass Violence, and Regional War: Praeger: London, 2002.

Taylor, C. Christopher. Sacrifice as Terror: The Rwandan Genocide of 1994: Berg: London, 1999.

Zachariah George, 2004. “Regional Framework for State Reconstruction in the Democratic Republic of the Congo”. Journal of International Affairs. 58(1): 215.

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