Kampala — Thousands of Rwandan refugees in Uganda could lose their status following the expiry of a deadline for voluntarily return to their country, officials said.
"We have been pushed to the limits, there is no justification for them to remain in Uganda," Tarsis Kabwengyere, Uganda's minister of disaster preparedness and refugees, said.
Money, he added, was being spent on refugees whose home country was stable and willing to take them back. Ugandan camps had also swollen due to renewed violence in eastern Congo, and there was need for some refugees to return home.
James Bigirwa, the deputy Resident District commissioner in Isingiro district where Nakivale settlement is located, said some refugees were faking local IDs following the expiry of the 31 July deadline.
In Rwanda, the government said those who did not return by the end of the year would lose citizenship.
"We shall apply the secession clause if they have not returned by the end of December, there is no more reason for any Rwandan to become a refugee," Innocent Ngango, the head of refugee repatriation at Rwanda's ministry of local government said.
The refugees are mainly ethnic Hutus whose repatriation has since June been implemented by the Ugandan and Rwandan governments, with the support of the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR.
"We have agreed that it is the right time for the Rwandan refugees to take advantage of the improved situation in their country to return home," Stefano Severe, UNHCR representative in Uganda said.
In the past two months, however, only 3,000 have returned home out of 17,000, some out of fear of possible persecution back home.
Andrew Munyakazi, a refugee working as a cleaner in Mbarara town told IRIN on 14 July that his family had voluntarily returned to Rwanda in 2002, but his father was arraigned before a Gacaca court and imprisoned for 15 years on genocide charges.
"Our land was immediately confiscated," he said. "How can I return to Rwanda - those who took over our land will cause my arrest again because they will think I have come to reclaim it."
In June, the New York-based Human Rights Watch warned the Ugandan and Tanzanian governments against forceful repatriation of refugees living in camps in their countries.
"Despite looming camp closing deadlines, neither government has publicly explained the alternatives," HRW said on 19 June. "Instead, both have threatened the refugees with forced return, saying that after the closures the remaining refugees will be "stripped" of their refugee status and treated as "illegal immigrants.
"Both positions would be unlawful under international refugee law."
Georgette Gagnon, the HRW's Africa director urged Uganda to clearly explain to the refugees options on the table. "Refugees do not lose their status as refugees simply because their camps are closed, and they should not be forcibly returned to their countries," he said.
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]