In Burundi, Rwandan asylum seekers say they have been verbally and physically abused by the military to force them to return home. The alleged intimidation was reported in the northeastern province of Kirundo. It has raised concerns at the UN refugee agency, the UNHCR.
Marie Ellen Vernay is a spokesperson for the UNHCR. From Geneva, she told English to Africa reporter Joe De Capua the whereabouts of many of the Rwandan asylum seekers are unknown.
She says, “Over the past few days, a large number of these Rwandan asylum seekers in Burundi have left the sites along the border at which they had been staying for a few weeks. UNHCR has now got reports from some of the asylum seekers that they have been intimidated into going back to Rwanda. These intimidations had been verbal until recently, but we had a report on Thursday that on Wednesday evening the Burundian military beat up some of the asylum seekers.”
She says this had a big effect on them. “There were some 7,000 asylum seekers,” she says, “that arrived in Burundi since early April. At the moment we can’t exactly quantify how many have left, but we know that four out of the seven sites on the border are now empty. We don’t know, however, whether they’ve all gone back to Rwanda. What seems to be happening is that large numbers of people have been going away on foot and that some of them may be hiding in neighboring areas in Burundi because they don’t want to go back to Rwanda.”
The reasons for not wanting to return home stem from the genocide in Rwanda. Ms. Vernay says, “They came to Burundi saying that they are worried about the tribunal process, the legal process called ‘gacaca.’” This legal process is meant to punish the people who took part in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. These people say they have been wrongly indicted. And they say they have been the victims of threats, threats of revenge from their neighbors.”
The UNHCR has contacted the Burundian military about the alleged incidents and is awaiting a response. The Burundi government had promised, according to the UNHCR, that it would respect the rights of asylum seekers.
The UN agency has also asked that UN peacekeepers be sent to the border areas where the asylum seekers were living.