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Burundi: UNHCR concerns about 5,000 Rwandan asylum seekers

Briefing notes

Burundi: UNHCR concerns about 5,000 Rwandan asylum seekers

10 May 2005

UNHCR remains concerned about 5,000 Rwandan asylum seekers in Burundi living in makeshift conditions along the two countries' common border. The Rwandans say they fled to Burundi because of fears over the recent start of local "gacaca" tribunals looking into the Rwandan genocide. Some 9,000 of these local courts are beginning their work across Rwanda. The asylum seekers arriving in Burundi - some 7,000 since early April - have cited threats and rumours of massacres and revenge attacks as reasons for leaving Rwanda.

In mid-April, UNHCR transferred some 1,800 of the Rwandans to two transit centres further inland in Burundi. However, those transfers were halted on April 23 following a decision by Burundi authorities. That left some 5,000 Rwandans at the border in precarious conditions. We would like to see them transferred to the more secure transit camps as well so they can also receive adequate assistance.

In the meantime, UN agencies and NGOs are providing emergency humanitarian assistance on an ad hoc basis to the thousands gathered at the border. UNHCR has distributed blankets, plastic sheeting and kitchen sets to the asylum seekers, while several NGOs are providing medical care. But to date, this assistance remains limited.

Burundian and Rwandan authorities are currently conducting a two-week sensitization campaign aimed at easing the fears of the asylum seekers and encouraging them to voluntarily return home. UNHCR staff are attending as many of these meetings with the asylum seekers as possible. Several hundred may have returned to Rwanda so far as a direct result of the campaign, which will end on Thursday (12 May). The Burundian and Rwandan authorities are scheduled to meet the following day in Butare to evaluate the impact of their sensitization campaign.

UNHCR welcomes assurances given by the Burundian authorities after a meeting on April 27 in Ngozi that the fundamental principle of non-refoulement will be respected, as well as the voluntary aspect of repatriation. We also welcome the decision of the Burundian government to carry out individual status determination, with UNHCR's involvement, for asylum seekers who do not wish to return to Rwanda.