Hundreds of Burundians flee for Rwanda, citing fears of violence
KIGALI, Rwanda, March 11 (UNHCR) - More than 800 Burundians have arrived in neighbouring Rwanda in the last two weeks, citing threats and fears of violence surrounding a recent referendum.
The new arrivals - some 600 Tutsis and a large group of Batwa pygmy tribespeople - had fled Ngozi, Kirundo and Muyinga provinces in northern Burundi, a region suffering from severe food shortage due to a lack of rain and a poor harvest. A number of them were in very poor health and severely malnourished. They said they did not flee out of hunger but out of fear after hearing rumours of violence surrounding a referendum last month.
One refugee, aged 15, told UNHCR that a neighbour's child had mentioned that anyone who did not flee would be killed. Another refugee explained why she sent her children into exile: "Better they die from hunger in an unknown country than die under machetes."
The group is currently hosted in a settlement near Gikonko in Butare province, southern Rwanda. For better protection and assistance, UNHCR is planning to move them soon to a camp at Nyamure, home to 3,000 Burundian refugees who arrived last year. Another 1,000 who fled Burundi for Rwanda last year have since returned home.
"UNHCR is concerned that the worsening food shortage and reported rise in tensions in northern Burundi may negatively affect the return home of many Burundians," said UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond in Geneva on Friday. He noted that the refugee agency repatriated more than 90,000 Burundians last year, and expects to help another 150,000 return home from Tanzania this year. There are at least 400,000 Burundian refugees in Tanzania, 250,000 of whom are in camps.
Returns to the northern provinces of Burundi have slowed down in the past few months.
A peace accord brokered by South Africa's Nelson Mandela in December 2002 ended decades of fighting in Burundi and led to the formation of a power-sharing government. In February this year, a long-awaited referendum on the new constitution passed peacefully. The new constitution gives Hutus 60 percent and Tutsis 40 percent of the seats in the national assembly, and paves the way for general elections to be held late this year.