UNHCR urges Burundi to stop involuntary returns
GENEVA, June 14 (UNHCR) - Some 5,000 Rwandan asylum seekers have been taken home from Burundi in what UNHCR considers involuntary returns that violate the principle of non-refoulement. The refugee agency is concerned that another 2,000 still in Burundi could be sent back to Rwanda today.
A total of 4,787 Rwandans who had arrived in Burundi since March after fleeing intimidation and fears of gacaca tribunals in their homeland were taken back to their villages in Rwanda this morning. They had been moved from northern Burundi's Songore transit centre in the last two days (Sunday and Monday), and spent the night in a stadium and military barracks in Butare, southern Rwanda.
The returns come in the wake of a decision taken by the governments of Burundi and Rwanda last weekend to re-label each other's refugees and asylum seekers as illegal immigrants even though no individual assessment of their asylum claims had been conducted. A joint statement by the two governments declared that "all measures will be taken to ensure that these people are repatriated without delay" to their respective home countries.
UNHCR staff witnessed some 800 Rwandans leaving Songore transit centre on Sunday after a sensitisation campaign by the authorities, but saw no instance of physical force being used against the asylum seekers. On Monday, however, the refugee agency and non-governmental organisations were denied access to the centre and were unable to verify if the returns were voluntary. The centre - which hosted some 6,000 Rwandans until last week - was empty by Monday afternoon.
"Access to persons of concern is an integral part of UNHCR's mandate. Without it, we cannot fulfil our protection role," said the agency's spokesman Ron Redmond at a news briefing in Geneva Tuesday.
He added, "The circumstances in which the return operation was conducted, as well as the experiences of the last weeks, lead to the conclusion that the asylum seekers had no other option but to return. Therefore, UNHCR cannot consider their return as voluntary, and hence it constitutes a violation of the principle of non-refoulement that is enshrined in the 1951 Refugee Convention, to which both Burundi and Rwanda are signatories."
UNHCR is also concerned about some 2,000 Rwandan refugees and asylum seekers who remain in three sites in Burundi. The local authorities have said they, too, will be returned to Rwanda today.
Another 7,000 Burundian refugees in Rwanda could face a similar fate under the bilateral agreement between the two countries. "We strongly urge Rwanda to refrain from any such initiative and ask that the refugees be fairly treated under the terms of the 1951 Convention and the 1969 OAU Convention," said Redmond.