UN reports Rwandan refugees repatriated by force
Tuesday, June 14, 2005
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is reporting that thousands of Rwandan asylum seekers who fled to neighbouring Burundi over the last few months have been forced to return home. Trucks laden with people have been seen leaving the camp, and some people have broken limbs after allegedly jumping to avoid returning to Rwanda.
According to a press release, the UNHCR was denied access to the Songore transit centre in northern Burundi, making verification difficult. The camp was home to at least 6,000 asylum seekers until last week. The Rwandan and Burundian governments met over the weekend and declared in a joint press release that the asylum seekers were not refugees but "illegal immigrants".
"Nothing justifies the presence of these people in Burundi. Rwanda is in peace and there is no persecution," said Burundian Interior Minister Jean Marie Ngendahayo.
This claim has been criticised by the UNHCR, which has stated that it would be illegal to return the people without first assessing their claim to asylum. Amnesty International has also claimed that Burundi's actions are contrary to international law.
"The use of verbal or physical threats to induce people to return to countries where they fear persecution is in complete contravention of international law — in particular the binding principle of non-refoulement," said Kolawole Olaniyan, Director of Amnesty International's Africa Programme.
"We urge the government of Burundi to implement fair and transparent asylum procedures to establish the risks of return for every single person claiming asylum — as is their duty under international law," he added.
This action appears to be part of a wider crackdown on asylum seekers from Rwanda and Burundi. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), an international aid group, reported yesterday that their medical staff had been denied access to the Songore camp.
The Rwandan asylum seekers began arriving in Burundi in March. Their main concern was the Gacaca courts, village courts established to expedite prosecution of perpretators of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. The UNHCR is also reporting that some asylum seekers "... said they were fleeing threats, intimidation, persecution and rumours of revenge and bloodshed."
The President of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, has previously called for the asylum seekers to return home, stating that they will not be in danger.
"Gacaca is not intended to have all the people who appear at Gacaca arrested and put in prison. We want these people to show remorse and through that they will provide information and will allow people to forgive them and allow them to settle," he said.
A Wikinews reporter was in Butare recently talking to the locals. She says that the mood is generally supportive of the courts.
"People here believe in the Gacaca process. They say that people have fled now because the investigations are reaching their end and people now know that the are going to be exposed in the process. They have heard 'rumours' that may have been circulated by former leaders of the genocide — or there may not have been rumours they may merely fear the trials - that there will be reprisals and violence," she said.
Some people fear reprisals after testifying before the courts.
"Fear is also experienced by those facing testimonies at the Gacaca trial: the widows etc. who will testify against their neighbours. I have been told by several people that high levels of security have been put into place in villages to protect people from revenge attacks for testifying or for being involved," she added.
There are 8,000 Rwandan asylum seekers in Burundi, and nearly 7,000 Burundians in Rwanda, according to the UNHCR.
- UNHCR Press Release. "Burundi camp now empty after government sends Rwandans home" — UNHCR, June 13, 2005
- Médecins Sans Frontières Press Room. "MSF Denied Access to Rwandan Transit Camp in Burundi" — Médecins Sans Frontières, June 13, 2005
- Amnesty International Press Release. "Burundi: 8,000 asylum seekers facing expulsion" — Amnesty International, June 13, 2005
- "Rwandan Hutus 'forced back home'" — BBC News, June 13, 2005
- "Rwandan president asks fleeing residents to return" — CNN.com, June 3, 2005
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