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Burundi Deporting Asylum Seekers to Rwanda

The U.N. Refugee Agency says the government of Burundi is in the process of deporting thousands of asylum seekers to Rwanda. The UNHCR says these deportations could be in violation of international refugee law.

U.N. refugee spokeswoman, Marie-Helene Verney tells VOA the Burundian authorities began deporting Rwandan asylum seekers Sunday from the Songore transit center where they were staying.

"Early this morning, the governor of the province told us that some 1,700 people had gone back by, let us say, 9:00 this morning. Since then, our team on the ground has seen some 13 trucks going back. So, what we can say for sure is that more than 2,000 people have gone back in the last 24 hours," she said.

The UNHCR says an estimated 8,000 Rwandan asylum seekers are in Burundi. It says some 6,000 of them are squeezed into the Songore transit center, a facility meant to hold 800 people.

At the rate in which these deportations are taking place, Ms. Verney says she expects the transit center to be emptied out within the next few days.

She says she does not know whether the Rwandans are being forcibly deported or are going back of their own free will. She says there are no international witnesses to what is happening.

Ms. Verney says the Burundian authorities have denied the UNHCR and other U.N. and private aid agencies access to the center and to the Rwandans.

"This is not good for them and it is also not good for Burundi," she said. "The Burundian authorities are telling us that the returns are voluntary. If the returns are voluntary, if all returns are indeed voluntary, than it is in the Burundian authorities' interest in a way that we are present to monitor this. So, yes it is possible that these people are being denied protection. They are in any case being denied international protection."

The Rwandan asylum seekers began fleeing to Burundi in early April because of fears over the so-called gacaca or village tribunals set up to look into the 1994 Rwandan genocide. They cited threats of intimidation, persecution and rumors of revenge as reasons for leaving the country.

The Rwandan government calls these rumors unfounded and says no one will be unjustly accused of involvement in the genocide.

UNHCR spokeswoman Verney says it has a team in Rwanda who will monitor the return of the asylum seekers. But, she says the U.N. aid workers are limited in what they can do and they cannot guarantee the safety of the returnees.