Refugee Resettlement

Eileen Babbit

Assistant Professor of International Politics, Fletcher School of Law, Tufts University

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

A: The project that I've been working on most recently is initially an evaluation project for the UN High Commissioner on Refugees and it was initiated by the previous high commissioner Mrs. Ogata At the very end of her tenure in that position, she was high commissioner for 10 years and in the last 2 years she was reflecting on two of the most difficult circumstances of her tenure assignment there which was returns to Bosnia and Rwanda. Part of the challenge was not only the numbers of people and the complexity of the return process this was you know people returning from many different external locations, under very adverse circumstances etc. etc. but also it strained the capacity of UNHCR because before the Cold War most of their return enterprises were not necessarily to divided communities, to countries where there were strong ethnic divisions. So even though there were legal challenges and logistical challenges there weren't so many of the inter-communal relations challenges.

What they found in working in Bosnia and Rwanda in particular, these were their most difficult cases, was that in addition to all of the other problems of getting people to come back and reintegrated into the society they were coming back to communities where they were really, really unwanted. Most of them were coming back to places where, in Bosnia, where before the war were places where they were a majority population and now post-war they are the minority so another group has literally taken over, moved into their homes, and many of those people are also displaced, traumatized, etc. and they're not about to simply give up everything and welcome the returning refugees with open arms. They're threatened, they're frightened, they're antagonistic. So there's been a lot of difficulty. In the places where people are returning in Bosnia to communities where their group is the majority, still, it's not been a problem, but if they're going back to places where they're the minority, it is.

And so what HCR and likewise in Rwanda. The Rwandan context is even more complicated because you have refugees from previous purges in Rwanda you have Tutsi refugees in Uganda, Tanzania, etc. from decades ago who in after the genocide began returning so you had about 800,000 people killed in Rwanda during the genocide. Most of them Tutsi, but some Hutu and you still have about 800,000 Tutsi in Rwanda because most of them are returning, but they've lived in exile for decades. They're not so necessarily welcomed again. They're welcomed by the government but they're not welcomed to the places where they're returning. They've been socialized and acclimated in other countries and are now coming back and there's a real difficulty in figuring out how to integrate them into an incredibly traumatized country because of the numbers of deaths in the genocide. So those are the circumstances under which HCR was interested in figuring out what should we be doing here. What kinds of programs should we be funding that would facilitate this reintegration process, which in effect is not in my opinion not just a technical process.

I mean being a conflict resolution person, I'm not only interested in what laws should be put in place and what government institutions should be given power to do whatever. I'm also interested in what it means for people to live in the same community after going through the events that they've just lived through and what that means. So we constructed and they wanted us to do this evaluation in these two extreme cases. Those were the countries they chose and they also chose the communities in which they wanted to do the evaluation, which were some of the most difficult.

Q: So straight to the hardest case.

A: Straight to the hardest case. And also in wonderful UN and UNHCR fashion they wanted us to do this in a year.

Q: laughs

A: Which became completely impossible and I won't go into all the details of the project but they chose two communities in Bosnia that were very difficult. One which was a Serb town before the war, during the war it became a Croatian town and now the Serbs are returning and it's also a seat of Croat nationalism. So it's not just sort of passive Croats who are sitting there as the Serbs are returning, it's very hostile Croats, many of whom themselves are displaced from somewhere else in Bosnia, so they really have no place else to go.

The other place in Bosnia is a place where there was a lot of Serb/Muslim antagonism during the war and it's right near where some of the concentration camps for Muslim men were set up. And now the Muslims are coming back and it's now a majority Serb area it's actually in Republic of Serbska so it's in this inter-entity sort of no-man's land it's in the Serb part and there's tremendous anxiety in the Muslims who are returning and terrible as you can imagine but a lot of commitment to come back and resettle this area. In Rwanda, the areas that they picked were the Northwest of the country, which is a Hutu stronghold, and is the area from which the president who died in the plane crash, which was sort of the spark for the genocide, this is the area from which he originated and his tribe but it's also the place where once the Tutsi government took over after the genocide, there were incursions across the border this is on the border with DRC. There were incursions of Hutu militia. So it's a place where the current government, although it's called a government of national reconciliation, and there are both Hutu and Tutsi, it's very much dominated by the Tutsi and so it's a place where the government does not pay a lot of attention because they consider them sort of their enemy. There's Hutu coming back to that area who were who left the country at the time of the genocide because of being fearful of their own lives after the government, after the RUF Forces came in.

Within the Hutu community; there's lots of division because there's those that stayed in the country and those who left and those who left who are returning there's a suspicion on the part of those who stayed that they might be part of the genocidaire. And all of this is very unspoken. It's not explicit at all and I don't claim to be a Rwanda expert this is only interpretation from people I know who are and who have given me a lot of insight. It's a very difficult country to understand because people are very, very closed. They do not talk they're very hospitable and wonderful and they tell you almost nothing and it's not surprising.