Intimidation reported as Rwandans return from Burundi
BUJUMBURA, Burundi, May 13 (UNHCR) - Hundreds of people who fled fears of tribunals in Rwanda and sought refuge along the Burundian border may have been intimidated to go home, said the UN refugee agency today.
According to Rwandan asylum seekers at the Ntega site in Kirundo province, north-eastern Burundi, the Burundian military broke into their shelters on Wednesday evening and beat them with batons. The soldiers warned they would be beaten again unless they had left the site by the end of the next day.
When UNHCR staff arrived at the site the following morning, only a few hundred of the 1,500 asylum seekers who had been staying at Ntega were still around. Most were packing their belongings. In the next few hours, UNHCR staff saw approximately 250-300 people leave for Rwanda on two pickups and three trucks. Many others left on foot. Only two families remained on the site by the end of Thursday afternoon.
UNHCR's office in Bujumbura contacted the Burundian authorities once it received the report. The authorities had assured the refugee agency after a meeting on April 27 that the fundamental principle of non-refoulement will be respected, as well as the voluntary aspect of repatriation. UNHCR has also asked for UN peacekeepers in Burundi to be present at the sites in the border area.
Four of the seven temporary sites where Rwandan asylum seekers had been staying since early April are now empty. Some of the asylum seekers are leaving on trucks sent by the Rwandan government to take them back home, but most of them are leaving on foot.
"UNHCR is not organising these departures, and is often not present when the asylum seekers are leaving the sites," said UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond in Geneva on Friday. He noted that most of the departures seem to be taking place between 4 pm and 9 am, when UN staff in Burundi are subject to a curfew.
"It is difficult to know exactly how many of the 7,000 Rwandans who arrived in Burundi since early April have left," he added. "We cannot confirm that everyone who left has gone back to Rwanda. Some of the people who departed the sites are thought to be hiding in neighbouring areas."
Burundian and Rwandan authorities are currently running an information campaign that they said was aimed at encouraging the asylum seekers to go home. The campaign was scheduled to end Thursday but has been extended by a week. Within curfew restrictions, UNHCR staff were attending as many of these meetings with the asylum seekers as possible.
The asylum seekers say they fled to Burundi because of fears over the gacaca tribunals looking into the 1994 Rwandan genocide. They also cite threats and rumours of massacres and revenge attacks as reasons for leaving Rwanda. Some 7,000 of them have been living in makeshift conditions along the border since early April. In mid-April, UNHCR transferred some 1,800 of them to two transit centres further inland in Burundi. However, all transfers were halted on April 23 following a decision by the Burundian authorities.