UNHCR warns refugees in Burundi about risks of return to eastern DRC

Briefing Notes, 6 October 2009

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Andrej Mahecic to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 6 October 2009, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

UNHCR has been advising some 2,300 Congolese refugees in Gihinga camp in Mwaro province in central Burundi not to go ahead with their announced plan to return to the troubled South Kivu province in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) this week.

Due to the ongoing military operations in their areas of origin, UNHCR has urged the refugees not to go back for the moment. We have underlined to those planning to repatriate that, under the prevailing security conditions, neither the Government authorities in the DRC nor UNHCR would be in a position to guarantee their safety upon return or to assist them in any other way.

The conditions which forced these refugees into exile in June 2004, and later were behind the Gatumba massacre in August the same year, still essentially prevail.

The Congolese refugees, who originate mainly from the DRC's Uvira region bordering Burundi, have refused to be relocated to a newly established camp in Bwagiriza in eastern Burundi. They have decided they will instead return to the DRC. Earlier this year, the Government of Burundi and UNHCR decided to consolidate camps and transfer the refugees to Bwagiriza. However, when the exercise started, only 264 refugees agreed to relocate.

The others said they feared for their safety in Bwagiriza because of its proximity to what they claim is a rival Congolese community in Tanzania. Despite UNHCR assurances that the camp was at a safe distance of 60 kilometres from the border, already hosting Congolese refugees of the same ethnic group, the refugees said they preferred to return to South Kivu and informed local Burundian authorities of their planned departure this week.

We support the return as preferred solution for any refugee. However, the conditions for organized voluntary repatriation to eastern DRC do not exist at present. We have already been forced to suspend the repatriation operation to eastern DRC earlier this year because of the ongoing military operations.

UNHCR Burundi assists and provides protection to some 30,000 mostly Congolese refugees living in three refugee camps, as well as in urban areas.