UNHCR concerned as Rwandans converge on Burundi transit centre
SONGORE, Burundi, May 31 (UNHCR) - Thousands of Rwandans are converging in an ill-equipped transit centre in northern Burundi after the authorities dismantled several border sites and ordered the closure of another transit centre.
The Burundian and Rwandan authorities had decided last week to move an estimated 10,000 Rwandan asylum seekers to Songore transit centre to make it easier to ensure their safety and conduct information campaigns convincing them to go home.
The asylum seekers first arrived in Burundi in early April after they fled fears of gacaca tribunals looking into the 1994 genocide. They also cited threats of intimidation, persecution and rumours of revenge as reasons for leaving Rwanda. Many of them lived in makeshift sites just inside Burundi. In mid-April, UNHCR managed to transfer some 1,800 to Cankuzo and Songore transit centres further inland, but the movement was halted by the authorities.
UNHCR has repeatedly raised concerns about the poor living conditions at the border sites and about reports that the asylum seekers had been intimidated by the Burundian army and Rwandan authorities to force them to go back to Rwanda.
Over the weekend, for the second time in a month, armed forces dismantled three border sites where more than 5,500 Rwandans had been living in difficult conditions, having just received temporary shelters, latrines and water.
"An undetermined number of asylum seekers returned to Rwanda, while thousands of others are walking some 50 km to Songore," UNHCR spokeswoman Jennifer Pagonis told reporters in Geneva on Tuesday. "UNHCR only has the logistical means to pick up the most vulnerable asylum seekers to transport them to the site."
Meanwhile, the Burundian authorities on Saturday ordered the closure of the other transit camp, Cankuzo, and for all the 1,700 Rwandans living there to be transferred to Songore as well.
"We were simply told the camp would be closed, so we decided we could at least provide safe transport to Songore," said Pagonis, adding that 572 Rwandans have so far been moved and that the transfer would continue until the Cankuzo centre is empty.
"Although UNHCR has been pressing for the relocation of the asylum seekers to the two inland transit centres for security and assistance reasons, the way this is being done causes us concern," said the UNHCR spokeswoman. "Songore is ill-prepared to receive large numbers of people and those converging there now are once again in very precarious conditions. They will initially have to live in the open, with a lack of basic sanitation facilities and limited water supplies."
Songore transit centre has a capacity for 800 refugees and was already overcrowded with 1,000 residents before the transfers started. An additional 1,500 asylum seekers have already arrived at the site since Saturday, and many more are coming.
The UN refugee agency is working rapidly to expand Songore to accommodate 6,000 people, but it will take two to three weeks before the asylum seekers can be properly sheltered.
More than 1,500 Rwandan asylum seekers have also arrived in Uganda.