UNHCR protests forcible return of Rwandan refugees
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees on Tuesday demanded that Burundi immediately halt the forced return of thousands of Rwandan refugees, describing it as a flagrant violation of basic human rights and international refugee instruments.
In a letter to Burundi President Sylvestre Ntibantunganya, High Commissioner Sadako Ogata expressed her "indignation and serious concern over the treatment inflicted on refugees and my own staff."
As of Tuesday afternoon, about 13,500 Rwandan refugees had been "refouled" since Friday from camps in northern Burundi. At least three people, including an 18-month-old baby and an elderly man, have died in the forced repatriation in which the refugees are tightly jammed into trucks and taken from Burundi to a transit centre in Butare, southern Rwanda. The baby and old man died of suffocation, according to medical staff in Butare. At least three children suffered broken limbs and several people had to be literally carried off the trucks.
UNHCR has been denied access to two camps - Kibezi and Ruvumu - which together had a refugee population of about 27,000. Until Friday, there were about 85,000 Rwandan refugees, predominantly Hutus, in four UNHCR-assisted camps in northern Burundi. As of Tuesday afternoon, UNHCR still had access to the other two camps, Magara (population 41,000) and Rukuramigabo (13,000). Kibezi, where the forced repatriations began Friday, was by Monday reported empty and looted, allegedly by displaced Burundis whose actions were ignored by surrounding army troops. Those refugees who were not forcibly expelled from Kibezi reportedly fled into the surrounding countryside, where they are without assistance or protection. Despite vocal protests from UNHCR and other agencies, a steady stream of vehicles continued to carry refugees to Butare on Tuesday.
"This refoulement ... represents a serious violation of a cardinal principle of human rights, but also is in breach of Burundi's obligations as a signatory of international legal instruments in support of refugees," Ogata's letter said.
"The fact that the authorities refuse UNHCR access to the camps, as well as their use of force and intimidation, demonstrates little concern for humanitarian principles and can only arouse my strongest reprobation."
Mrs. Ogata said she wished to strongly reiterate her demand that the forced returns be halted and that such activities not be allowed to occur again. "I hope that, in spite of the difficulties faced by Burundi, your country will honour its commitments to protect refugees on its territory," she said.
Earlier, UNHCR expressed its horror over the tragic massacre of more than 240 people on Saturday in Bugendana, in the central Gitega region.
In a separate letter to Rwanda President Pasteur Bizimungu, the High Commissioner expressed her strong concern about the role of Rwandan officials in the events in Burundi. Rwandan participants in a just-concluded meeting in Bujumbura last week of the Tripartite Commission (Burundi, Rwanda and UNHCR) have been present during the refoulement, which followed failed efforts to convince the refugees to return voluntarily. Mrs. Ogata said the role played by the Rwandan delegation in the operation was "highly regrettable."
"Acts in flagrant violation of (relevant refugee) principles also undermine Rwanda's public statements of the unconditional voluntary return of refugees in safety and dignity and send the wrong message to potential voluntary repatriants," the letter to the Rwandan President said.
Since January 1995, when the voluntary repatriation programme began, UNHCR has assisted more than 55,000 Rwandan refugees to return home from Burundi.