Rwanda wants refugees back

6th October 2000 at 01:00
Demand for return of 30,000 children flown out by charities at the time of the 1994 genocide. Wachira Kigotho reports.

RWANDA is demanding the immediate repatriation of 30,000 schoolchildren flown to Europe and several countries in Africa during the 1994 genocide that left up to a million dead.

The children were left behind by fleeing parents and were rescued by Western aid organisations. Most are now scattered throughout Italy, France, Belgium and various African countries. Many have been living with foster parents.

Now Rwandan minister of foreign affairs Andre Bumaya has demanded that they be returned. He said: "Those children were spirited out of Rwanda without their parents' consent. We want all of them back now."

Western countries are not, in principle, opposed to returning the children. However, the Italian ambassador to Rwanda Luigi Napolitano - one of the Western officials to whom Mr Bumaya's demand was made - advised that the repatriation be handled carefully to avoid causing further trauma to the children when separating them from their foster parents.

Children's aid organisations are particularly worried by the possibility that most of the children have no close relatives back in Rwanda and will be left to fend for themselves.

As result of the killings, Rwanda already leads the rest of the countries in eastern Africa in the number of households headed by those under 18.

According to a World Bank report, about 15 per cent of Rwandan households are headed by children.

"Children-led households are food-poor since they lack able-bodied labour, in a country where families are highly dependent on food-for-work programmes," says the report.

There are also fears that the exercise, if not handled carefully, could complicate future interventions by aid organisations. If the children are returned, charities may decide that, in future, it will be more sensible to put children in regions of conflict in refugee camps rather than flying them to Europe or elsewhere.

The Italian government has said that adopted children must consent to return to Rwanda. Political uncertainty and widespread poverty in Rwanda may cause some relatives to encourage the children to stay there and in other Western countries.

The 90-day genocide in 1994 was an attempt by extremists from the Hutu ethnic majority to wipe out the Tutsi minority. More than half a million Tutsis and thousands of moderate Hutus were killed in a slaughter that only ended when Tutsi-led rebels seized control of the country.

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