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UNHCR refused access to asylum seekers in Burundi

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UNHCR refused access to asylum seekers in Burundi

13 June 2005

13 June 2005

GENEVA - Ignoring UNHCR pleas for restraint, Burundi and Rwanda pressed ahead Monday with a joint operation to return thousands of Rwandan asylum seekers to their homeland. Authorities early Monday denied UNHCR and its NGO partners access to the transit centre from where the return operation was being conducted.

As of midday Monday, more than 3,700 asylum seekers had left the Songore transit centre in northern Burundi aboard trucks headed for Rwanda, according to local authorities who also said it is expected that all asylum seekers in Songore will have returned to Rwanda by this evening.

Burundian officials said all returns from Songore, which until last week hosted some 6,000 Rwandans, were voluntary. UNHCR, however, is not in a position to confirm this because it was denied access to the departure site. A UNHCR team monitoring the situation from outside the transit centre said they had counted 13 trucks full of asylum seekers leaving the centre by mid-morning. Eyewitnesses reported seeing a few asylum seekers jumping off the trucks while en route to the border.

This new wave of departures comes after the Burundian and Rwandan authorities announced over the weekend that they were re-labelling each other's refugees and asylum seekers as "illegal immigrants" who had left their home countries "without good reasons." In a joint statement issued over the weekend following a ministerial-level meeting between Burundi and Rwanda, the two governments declared that "all measures will be taken to ensure that these people are repatriated without delay" to their respective home countries.

Earlier, UNHCR expressed alarm at this statement and warned that the decision could well be in contravention of international refugee law and in particular the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and the 1969 OAU Convention.

"We repeatedly urged Burundi to respect the principles of non-refoulement and to allow UNHCR access to Songore," said UNHCR's Director for Africa, David Lambo. "The latest decision of the Burundian authorities to conduct a return operation of thousands of asylum seekers while denying UNHCR access to them puts into question the voluntary nature of the returns."

The UNHCR team was refused entry to Songore on Monday by the camp's administrator, a decision that was later confirmed by the provincial governor. Other UN agencies and all NGOs were also denied access. On Sunday, UNHCR staff inside the camp witnessed the departure of more than 800 asylum seekers who left following a joint sensitisation campaign carried out by the Rwandan and Burundian authorities. UNHCR staff said they saw no instance of physical force being used against those departing on Sunday.

Since the asylum seekers from Rwanda began arriving in March, UNHCR has repeatedly expressed concern over their fate and has held discussions with both Burundi and Rwanda over the past few weeks. Lambo said that the agency had recently informed both governments at the highest levels that it is committed to find a constructive solution.

Rwandan asylum seekers in Burundi say they left their country because of fears over the "gacaca" tribunals looking into the Rwandan genocide and citing threats of intimidation, persecution and rumours of revenge. In total, there are some 8,000 Rwandan refugees and asylum seekers in Burundi and close to 7,000 Burundians in Rwanda.