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Burundi/DRC: 366 Congolese refugees chose to cross back into DRC

Briefing notes

Burundi/DRC: 366 Congolese refugees chose to cross back into DRC

28 September 2004

UNHCR is calling on the authorities in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and especially the local authorities in the eastern region of South Kivu, to ensure the safety of Congolese nationals who choose to return to their country after taking refuge in Burundi.

A group of 366 Congolese refugees who had been sheltering in Burundi's border area chose to cross back into DRC on Friday. The refugees had previously declined UNHCR's offer to relocate them to a new camp further away from the border in Burundi. The group, made up exclusively of Banyamulenge, Congolese of Tutsi origin, was initially stopped at the DRC border, and told to return to Burundi, which they refused to do.

The refugees, among whom were 118 children below 12 years of age, and 112 women, were forced to spend two nights at the border, with no proper shelter. UNHCR does not have access to the border area, either in Burundi or DRC. MONUC's - the United Nations Mission in Congo - military observers were deployed in the area to monitor the refugees' situation. Meanwhile, riots broke out in Uvira protesting against the return of the refugees. The demonstrations turned violent, wounding several people. A local leader attempted to calm the situation by addressing the crowds.

A transit centre has now been set up outside Uvira for the refugees - a convoy of trucks carrying the group was stoned on its way there. Congolese soldiers are protecting the centre, and MONUC troops are on the ground. The Congolese Ministry of the Interior has expressed the view that it would be better for the group to return to Burundi for the time being. MONUC has expressed concern that any Congolese nationals should be free to return if they wish, and that it is the state's duty to protect them.

Twenty thousand people fled fighting between loyalist and dissident Congolese army troops in South Kivu in June and took refuge inside Burundi. Following the attack against the Gatumba transit centre in August, the Burundian authorities asked all refugees to leave the area and relocate further inland, where they say their safety can be better guaranteed.

The refugee agency started voluntary convoys to the new camp of Gihinga in Mwaro province last week. However, only 120 refugees chose to relocate, prompting UNHCR to warn that the refugees were coming under pressure from some of their peers to repatriate. A few days before, the vice-governor of South Kivu had visited Burundi and told refugees it was safe for them to return home.

UNHCR is organising more convoys to Gihinga camp, in Mwaro province, this week, and will continue its efforts to counsel refugees that conditions in South Kivu are very volatile. The refugee agency has negotiated with the Burundian authorities that the border into Burundi is open, should the group decide to seek refuge in Burundi again.