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RWANDA REFLECTS SHIFT IN REPATRIATION POLICY.

Byline: Raymond Bonner The New York Times

In supporting the recent expulsion from camps in Tanzania of more than 200,000 Rwandans, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has departed from its longstanding opposition to forced repatriation of refugees, agency officials here acknowledge.

Until now, the agency has been vocal and consistent in its opposition to the coercive return of refugees, and its role in Tanzania has drawn sharp criticism from some human-rights groups.

``It is a compromise,'' a senior official said. But he and several officials said the agency's support for the return of refugees living in Tanzania was a bow to the ``new realities.''

One of those new realities is that Western governments are tightening the purse strings. The Rwandan refugee camps in Tanzania cost some $2 million a day, and the United States had been leaning on the refugee agency for months to close them. Indeed, the Clinton administration had urged that food aid to the camps be cut, in order to persuade the Rwandan refugees to go home.

Officials at the agency said these realities were likely to produce other scenes of forced repatriation, soon probably in northern Iraq, where there are thousands of Turkish Kurds in camps. The Turkish government wants the camps closed because it believes they are bases for Turkish Kurd guerrillas, just as the Rwandan government wanted the Tanzanian camps closed because anti-government rebels were operating from them.

In interviews here, senior refugee officials provided details about how the forced repatriation of the Rwandans began with a police operation set up to force rebel soldiers and paramilitary units out of the camps, so that the refugees could decide on their own whether to stay or return.

However well intentioned and whatever the geopolitical realities, the refugee agency's participation in the forced repatriation of the Rwandans from Tanzania prompted human-rights organizations to condemn the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which has twice been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, most recently in 1981.

Human Rights Watch accused the agency of having ``shamefully abandoned its responsibility to protect refugees.'' Amnesty International made a similar assertion, though not quite so sharply.

The former director of disaster-relief operations in the Reagan administration, Julia Taft, rejected the criticisms.

``One can be a purist if one wants,'' Taft said in a telephone interview from Washington, where she is now president of Interaction, a coalition of nongovernmental relief and development agencies. ``But you also have to be a realist. You have to make hard decisions. Where are people better off, in the hell of the camps or back in Rwanda? The answer is in Rwanda.''

That is also what the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees concluded.

``We believe that the conditions in Rwanda have evolved in a positive and encouraging manner, so that the refugees can return in safety and dignity,'' said Sergio Viera de Mello, senior assistant to the High Commissioner for Refugees.

In the past, the agency would not have sent refugees back to conditions similar to those in Rwanda, where there are serious questions about whether the returning Hutu will be able to move into their former houses, many of which have been taken over by Tutsi.

Three years ago, for example, when Kenya forced a thousand Somalis back to their home, after the war had subsided, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees roundly condemned the government.

The second reason for supporting the closing of the Tanzanian camps, de Mello said in an interview, was that the refugees were not really there voluntarily, but were under the control of Hutu militia and soldiers of the former Rwanda government.

It was that government that had carried out the massacres in 1994, and when it was overthrown by the Tutsi rebels, more than 1 million Hutu fled to camps in Zaire and Tanzania.

Soldiers and politicians from the exiled government set up political and military structures in the camps, an unparalleled development in the annals of refugee flight.

Thus, the existence of the camps, again in both countries, was contributing to an instability that many analysts said they believed would eventually lead to full-scale war. The Hutu rebels were using the camps to organize political support for raids into Rwanda. The Rwandan government countered with pre-emptory strikes.
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Dec 22, 1996
Words:712
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