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UNHCR Concerned About Thousands of Rwandans on Burundi Border

  • Lisa Schlein

The UN Refugee Agency says 5,000 Rwandan refugees are living in precarious conditions on the border with Burundi and must be moved to a safer location inland. It says the refugees fled Rwanda and the threat of violence arising from village tribunals looking into the 1994 genocide.

The U.N. refugee agency says it has had no response from the government of Burundi to its appeal to move the Rwandan refugees to secure transit camps.

UNHCR spokeswoman, Jennifer Pagonis, says the refugees are living under makeshift conditions. She says it is difficult to get humanitarian assistance to them and people have been surviving on emergency aid provided on an ad-hoc basis by U.N. and private agencies.

She says the refugees are among nearly 7,000 Rwandans who have fled to Burundi since early April.

"They say that they are fleeing because of fears over the start of the local Gacaca Tribunals, which are looking into the Rwandan genocide," she said. "Now there are some 9,000 of these local courts which have started their work across Rwanda and these asylum seekers arriving in Burundi - some 7,000 since early April - have cited threats and rumors of massacres and revenge attacks as reasons for leaving Rwanda."

Rwanda set up the tribunals to deal with a backlog of tens of thousands of suspects awaiting trial in conventional courts. They are charged with participating in the genocide by Hutu extremists of 800,000 Tutsi and Hutu moderates in 1994.

In mid-April, the UNHCR transferred 1,800 of the 7,000 Rwandans from the border to two transit camps further inland in Burundi. The Burundian authorities halted this movement on April 23, leaving 5,000 refugees stranded at the border.

Ms. Pagonis says several hundred Rwandans may have returned home as a result of a two-week campaign launched by the Burundian and Rwandan authorities. She says the campaign, which is aimed at easing the fears of the asylum seekers and encourage them to go back to Rwanda, is scheduled to end on Thursday.

"And, after that, both authorities in both countries are scheduled to meet to evaluate the impact of that campaign," she said. "Now, we have been given assurances by the Burundians that they will respect this principle of non-refoulement, that is that people will not be forced back against their will. And, the Burundian government has also said that we can carry out a status determination of these asylum seekers who do not wish to return to Rwanda."

Ms. Pagonis says her agency is concerned about reports of cases of intimidation. She says aid workers try to make sure that asylum seekers know that they do not have to return to a country against their will.

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