Rwanda’s first refugees: Tutsi exile and international response 1959–64

 

Pages 211-229 | Received 01 Jun 2011, Published online: 10 May 2012

Abstract

By the time Rwanda gained independence from Belgium in 1962, 200,000 Rwandan Tutsi had left to seek exile in neighbouring states. Drawing on British archives, this article traces international responses to this refugee crisis in Uganda, arguing that the political subtleties of this displacement are often overlooked.

British officials’ anxious responses to the Tutsi exodus in 1959 were dominated above all by concern for Ugandan decolonisation. Yet after independence in 1962, the Rwandans were quickly re-imagined by Ugandan actors who had previously supported their right to remain in the territory as a threat to Ugandan national citizenship. This political exclusion of the Tutsi elite prompted increasing refugee militarisation, yet the resulting inyenzi raids only provided further justification for the international community to pursue a humanitarian rather than a political course in responding to the Rwandan crisis.

The article concludes that recognising the complexities of this early refugee movement and international responses to the crisis is important. Such study allows a more critical analysis of prevalent narratives around histories of exile and return in Rwanda, and underlines the role that international refugee protection policies may play in creating protracted refugee crises.