Burundi camp now empty after government sends Rwandans home
GENEVA, June 13 (UNHCR) - A transit centre in Burundi is now empty after thousands of Rwandan asylum seekers were returned home within hours in a controversial operation by the authorities of the two countries. Denied access to the centre, UNHCR has been unable to verify if the asylum seekers went home voluntarily.
Songore transit centre in northern Burundi had hosted some 6,000 Rwandan asylum seekers until last week. Over the weekend, Burundian and Rwandan authorities announced 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 both cases, said their joint press release, "all measures will be taken to ensure that these people are repatriated without delay" to their respective home countries.
By Monday afternoon, the Songore centre was empty. UNHCR staff - who were denied entry to the centre along with other non-governmental organisations - monitored the situation from outside the centre and saw the asylum seekers leaving on trucks. According to eyewitnesses, a few passengers jumped off the trucks en route to the border.
Burundian authorities say that all returns from Songore are voluntary, but UNHCR has been unable to confirm this because it has not been allowed inside the centre since Monday morning.
"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."
Reacting to the governments' statement over the weekend, UNHCR had expressed alarm and warned that the decision to re-label refugees and asylum seekers could well be in contravention of international refugee law and in particular the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and the 1969 OAU Convention.
The Rwandan asylum seekers first arrived in Burundi in March this year, citing fears and threats surrounding the gacaca trials looking into the 1994 genocide in their homeland. UNHCR had continuously appealed to the Burundian authorities to relocate them to a safer site away from the border, and offered assistance to both governments to find a constructive solution.
Prior to the latest returns, Burundi had hosted some 8,000 Rwandan refugees and asylum seekers. Rwanda hosts close to 7,000 Burundians.