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The Rwandan Refugee Crisis: Before the Genocide: Part I

Burundian refugees fled to Rwanda following the assassination of their country’s president, Melchior Ndadaye, in October 1993. —B. Press/UNHC

In commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, the Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide and the National Security Archive launched the first phase of a multiyear initiative titled Failure to Prevent: International Decision Making in the Age of Genocide. The first phase includes a series of “electronic briefing books” that provide in-depth background to pivotal events before and during the Rwandan genocide when international action could have made a difference. This is the fourth briefing book in the series. 


In the months leading up to the genocide in Rwanda, UN officials and western diplomats grew increasingly concerned about the threat to political stability posed by millions of refugees and internally displaced persons in the Great Lakes region. Attempts by the international community to address this refugee crisis became enmeshed in political infighting inside the country.

The documents posted here show the refugee crisis was compounded by a lack of reliable intelligence and a shortage of military personnel and international monitors. An ambitious refugee resettlement program negotiated as part of the Arusha Accords by the Hutu-led government of Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana and the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) was never actually implemented.

The documents are drawn from the records of the UN peacekeeping force in Rwanda, known as UNAMIR, and US State Department records released in response to Freedom of Information Act requests submitted by the National Security Archive.

A State Department fact sheet issued in March 1994 on the eve of the genocide summarizes three overlapping refugee crises in Rwanda and neighboring Burundi:

  • Tutsi refugees from Rwanda. The State Department estimated there were 550,000 refugees, predominantly Tutsis, in Central Africa, most of whom fled Rwanda in the pogroms that followed the overthrow of the Tutsi monarchy in 1959. The largest exile communities were in Uganda (200,000) and Burundi (245,000).

  • Internally displaced persons fleeing RPF incursions into northern Rwanda from Uganda in 1990 and 1993. The State Department estimated 350,000 Rwandans (predominantly Hutus, but also Tutsis) remained displaced as a result of fighting between the Rwandan government and the RPF.

  • Hutu refugees from Burundi. An October 1993 coup attempt in Burundi and the assassination of the country’s democratically elected Hutu president by Tutsi army officers resulted in an exodus of refugees, predominantly Hutus, from Burundi. According to the State Department, about 287,000 Burundian refugees remained in southern Rwanda in March 1994.

Each of these three groups had its own distinct grievances and aspirations, dating back many decades. The Tutsi diaspora served as a natural recruiting ground for the RPF. According to a former US diplomat in Kigali, Joyce Leader, Hutu refugees from Burundi were “radicalized” by their experiences and were “potential recruits” for the Interahamwe militia groups who were responsible for some of the worst episodes of the genocide in Rwanda.  

The documents posted here show that international officials devoted considerable diplomatic attention to the refugee problem in Rwanda. The Rwandan government and the RPF signed a protocol settling refugee issues in June 1993 as part of the Arusha negotiations. Instead of implementing the agreement, UN peacekeepers were overwhelmed by a fresh wave of refugees from Burundi following the October 1993 assassination of that country’s president, Melchior Ndadaye.

The documents suggest that UN officials were wary of providing assistance to Tutsi refugees and internally displaced persons in northern Rwanda for fear of creating a “pull factor” that would result in even larger numbers of refugees. 

Next: Documents 1–8: Summaries and Links