The U.N. Refugee Agency reports Burundian authorities have sent back nearly 5,000 Rwandan asylum seekers during the past two days. The UNHCR says the Songore transit center in northern Burundi, where they had been staying, is empty.
The U.N. Refugee Agency says it and other U.N. and private aid agencies were denied access to the Songore transit center. So, it cannot confirm that the Rwandan asylum seekers went home voluntarily.
But UNHCR Spokesman, Ron Redmond, says some of the asylum seekers reportedly jumped from the trucks transporting them to Rwanda. He says this, and other reports of coercion indicate that the Rwandans did not return home of their own free will.
"The circumstances in which the return operation was conducted, as well as the experiences in the last weeks, lead to the conclusion that the asylum seekers had no other option but to return,” he said. “Therefore, UNHCR cannot consider their return as voluntary, and hence it constitutes a violation of the principle of non-refoulement enshrined in the 1951 Refugee Convention, to which both Burundi and Rwanda are signatories."
The Rwandan asylum seekers began fleeing to Burundi in March, citing fears and threats surrounding the local gacaca tribunals. These village courts are looking into the 1994 Rwandan genocide in which some 800,000 mainly Tutsi and Hutu moderates were killed by the Hutu.
The return operation from Songore started on Sunday. This followed an announcement by Burundi and Rwanda that the two countries were re-labeling asylum seekers as illegal immigrants.
Mr. Redmond says this was done even though no examination of any asylum claims had taken place. He says this sets a worrying precedent.
"UNHCR is also concerned about the fate of some 7,000 Burundian refugees in Rwanda,” he added. “Under this weekend's agreement between the two countries, they too are now considered illegal immigrants and we fear they could be returned to their homeland against their will. We strongly urge Rwanda to refrain from any such initiative and ask that the refugees be fairly treated under the terms of the 1951 Convention and the 1969 OAU Convention."
Mr. Redmond says the Burundians have been in Rwanda for several months. During that time, he says their claims for asylum have been processed. He says a great many of them have a well-founded fear of persecution and should be considered as refugees in need of protection.