Waiting refugees granted return to DR Congo
GATUMBA, Burundi, Oct 12 (UNHCR) - For the past six days, the no man's land that separates Burundi from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has taken the atmosphere of a market place.
Vendors have been selling snacks and cold drinks at a tiny border post to a group of over 1,000 Congolese refugees who had massed there to wait for permission to re-enter the DRC. The refugees had brought some supplies of their own and were cooking at their makeshift camp. A steady traffic of taxis, trucks and private cars brought additional items from the Burundian capital, Bujumbura, some 15 km away. Many of the refugees stayed overnight, sleeping in the open. Others went back for the night to nearby Gatumba town and Bujumbura and returned to the border every morning.
The Congolese authorities refused the group entry last week, citing a lack of transit facilities in the DRC's border area to accommodate them, and saying that the numbers waiting at the border were too large for normal control at this tiny crossing.
But yesterday, the Congolese authorities agreed to let the refugees return home. The border was opened early in the afternoon, and a first group of 200 refugees were taken into the DRC under the protection of the UN Mission in the Congo (MONUC) to a transit centre near the Congolese city of Uvira. The rest are due to return to the DRC today after verification by MONUC and Congolese authorities.
Those remaining faced another night out in the open during the rainy season. Predicting this situation, UNHCR Burundi had arranged for an emergency distribution of plastic sheeting, soap and jerry cans yesterday, prior to the refugees' exit from Burundi. This distribution added to the assistance the refugees had already received from UN agencies over the weekend.
"UNHCR has repeatedly advised the refugees that the situation in their home region of South Kivu remains volatile, and that return at this stage could be difficult," stressed UNHCR spokeswoman Marie-Hélène Verney at a news briefing in Geneva Tuesday. "However, the refugees are determined to return home, and we are putting in place an emergency assistance programme in their home area that will include the opening of a UNHCR office in Uvira."
The returning refugees are part of some 20,000 who arrived in Burundi after they fled fighting the South Kivu region in June.
At the end of September, riots erupted in Uvira to protest the return of 365 Congolese refugees from Burundi who had also been held up at the border, but were eventually allowed across the border to stay in transit facilities near Uvira under MONUC guard. The returnees eventually dispersed to their homes after a few days.
Last week's influx at the border began on Wednesday, when some 400 refugees from nearby Gatumba arrived at the frontier, followed the next day by another wave of 700 refugees from the Karurama transit centre. Some 70 per cent of the people were Banyamulenge, while the others were from other ethnic groups, according to one elder at the scene.
At an impromptu meeting yesterday between UNHCR, OCHA (UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs) and the refugee representatives, the governor of Bukavu province in the DRC said that the border post had never been closed, but simply "suspended" due to the refugees' heavy presence. He added that the authorities wanted to verify the refugees' identity and search the baggage of some, pointing out that this occurred at border crossings everywhere in the world.
The Burundian government repeated that Congolese refugees who wished to remain in Burundi were welcome to do so.
"The crossing point back into Burundi has never been closed, and a return to Gatumba and Karurama and an eventual transfer to a refugee camp further inland in Burundi has always been an option for this group of people," UNHCR's Verney noted.
Asked why they had suddenly decided to mass at the frontier and remain there, the refugees' committee said they had been given ultimatums to leave by the Burundian authorities. However, Karurama transit centre is still open and is sheltering refugees scheduled to leave for a refugee camp in Burundi this week. The refugees' representatives insisted that none of the people there at the border wanted to go to a refugee camp but wanted simply to return to their homes in the DRC. Others interviewed there by UNHCR agreed.
In the past two weeks, UNHCR has transferred around 1,300 refugees to Gihinga camp, further inside Burundi in Mwaro province, following a brutal attack on Gatumba transit centre in August. Another 1,240 Congolese refugees have left Burundi for Rwanda in recent weeks.