GOMA, Congo — Congo's government said it will not immediately apply a cessation clause ending refugee status for more than 120,000 Rwandans who fled to Congo after the 1994 Rwandan genocide, and are still there.
Rwanda has accepted Congo's arguments in favor of a phased approach to the refugees' repatriation, Congolese interior minister Richard Muyej said Saturday. Rwanda had in 2011 asked Congo to apply a cessation clause on June 30, 2013.
"We thought we should do this in stages to give a chance to all the refugees to go home" Muyej said after a meeting between officials from each country in Rwanda's capital, Kigali. "Happily we had a convivial meeting and have now agreed on this approach."
The Rwandan government has repeatedly said that since peace has now returned to the country its citizens no longer need to live in exile.
Refugee issues have soured relations between the two countries for nearly two decades.
Rwanda has often accused Congo, and the international community, of protecting Rwandan refugees who took part in the genocide and allowing them to rearm on Congolese soil. Rebels in Congo have also claimed they are fighting for their compatriots' right to return from exile in Rwanda.
Muyej said it was important to agree on refugee issues so these would no longer be excuses for conflict.
Julien Paluku, governor of North Kivu province where most of the Rwandan refugees have settled told the Associated Press that the two countries have agreed on the next steps to resolve the issues.
Rwandan refugees will first be identified, registered and asked if they want to return. A follow up meeting will be held in October after which a repatriation plan will be drawn up and the parties will consider whether to apply a cessation clause.
Rwanda's minister for refugees Seraphine Munkatabana said her government understands there are preliminary steps to be taken by October to allow the cessation clause to be activated, according to U.N. Radio Okapi in Congo.
Refugees who do not want to return will have a choice between applying for a residence permit, or for Congolese nationality, which may be granted on a case-by-case basis but not collectively, Paluku added.
Congolese refugees in Rwanda are also welcome to come back, Paluku said. "The areas they will return to (mainly in North Kivu) are now largely secure," he said.
When asked if the refugees would be able to return to their homesteads and farm their land, he said:
"People cannot come back and claim what they did not have before, but the government must ensure they get back what is rightfully theirs."
Land disputes are among the reasons why there are more than two million internally displaced people within Congo as well as an estimated 72,000 Congolese refugees in Rwanda.