Roman Catholic bishops in Zambia are protesting a government attempt to repatriate nearly 5,000 refugees who fled different episodes of inter-ethnic violence in Rwanda between 1959 and 1994.

The bishops are urging the government to consider integrating migrants into the local community, since many have lived in Zambia for more than 50 years.

“We are greatly disturbed by complaints among refugees, especially those from Rwanda, that the Ministry of Home Affairs in agreement with the local United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and possibly the government of Rwanda, is trying to forcefully repatriate Rwandese refugees from Zambia,” said the bishops in a statement.

Rwanda, in central Africa, has been troubled by inter-ethnic tensions between the dominant minority Tutsi and majority Hutu communities since its independence from Belgium in 1962. The tensions peaked in 1994, when nearly 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were massacred within 100 days.

Since then, Rwanda has achieved stability and economic growth. In successive years, millions of refugees have returned home, but nearly 60,000 are still living in exile across Africa.

On Jan. 19, the UNHCR signed an agreement with Zambia and Rwanda on voluntary repatriation of 5,000 refugees. The organization has been recommending an end to the Rwandan refugee status under the “ceased circumstances cessation clause” of the1951 Refugee Convention. The clause is a comprehensive end strategy for a refugee situation in a country and includes repatriation, integration and exemptions for those seen to need international protection.

The refugees have protested across Zambian towns that Rwanda is still unsafe for them. They have highlighted reports of kidnapping, killing, abduction and disappearances of politicians, journalists and former government officials. They are asking for resettlement in other countries or acceptance as Zambian citizens.

“We believe it’s not right ... to remove the refugee status from the Rwandese nationals based in Zambia or those from other countries and oblige them to return to their own countries against their wishes,” said the bishops.

However, in Rwanda, Anglican Bishop Alexis Bilindabagabo of the Gahini diocese, president of the Council of Protestant Churches, disagreed with his Catholic counterparts. “They should have instead used their auspices as a church to encourage the refugees to return to their country. What they are doing is totally wrong,” The New Times of Rwanda quoted the bishop as saying on Feb. 6.

UNHCR says Rwandan refugees will have their status in host countries until June, 2013. After that, no Rwandan national will have the refugee status. Reports say the Rwandan government supports repatriation.