UNHCR moves first refugees to Burundi camp; concerned about pressure near border
BUJUMBURA, Burundi, Sept 24 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency has expressed concern that Congolese refugees in Burundi's border area may be under pressure to return to the insecure South Kivu region of eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
On Thursday, UNHCR relocated a first convoy of 102 Congolese refugees from Burundi's border area to the new Gihinga camp in Mwaro province, central Burundi. Ninety-eight of them were from Kararuma transit centre while four were from the Gatumba area.
"The number of refugees who moved to Gihinga this week is much smaller than UNHCR had anticipated," said the agency's spokeswoman, Jennifer Pagonis, at a news briefing in Geneva Friday. She noted that several hundreds had registered at Gatumba and Kararuma to be transferred to the new camp. However, only four of the 200 registered at Gatumba agreed to go when trucks and buses arrived as scheduled.
Gatumba transit centre was the scene of a brutal massacre in August that killed more than 150 refugees. Survivors have been living in two school buildings in the area since the attack.
The Burundian government has repeatedly called for the closure of all the border transit centres - Gatumba, Kararuma and Rugombo - that together hosted many of the 20,000 Congolese arrivals who had fled fighting in South Kivu in June. The refugees are given three options - move to safer locations further inside Burundi, register in their current area of residence, or repatriate to the DRC if they wish.
Earlier this week, the Vice-Governor of South Kivu visited Gatumba and told the refugees that it was safe to return home. A large number of refugees have already repatriated from Rugombo transit centre.
"UNHCR is concerned refugees are receiving information that may prevent them from taking an informed decision and are coming under pressure from some of their peers to repatriate. We do not facilitate repatriation to the DRC, and have advised refugees that conditions in their home area are still volatile," said Pagonis, pointing to reports this week that thousands more have fled renewed fighting in South Kivu's Bukavu town.
"The refugee agency will continue its work to ensure that Congolese refugees can make a free choice, based on the current situation in both Burundi and the DRC," the UNHCR spokeswoman emphasised.
More convoys are planned next week to Gihinga camp, where security is a top priority. The United Nations Operation in Burundi (ONUB) escorted Thursday's convoy to the camp, and together with government troops, will ensure security there. Gihinga camp can accommodate some 6,000 people.