About 18,000 Rwandans in northern Burundi are applying to stay in Burundi as refugees, claiming that their lives are in danger. But about 95 percent of the applications have so far been rejected and the Rwandans are to be sent home. Human rights groups accuse Rwanda of pressuring Burundi to return the asylum seekers, a charge both governments deny.
It is raining heavily at the Musasa transit center in northern Burundi's Ngozi province.
People scramble into rows and rows of long, narrow, warehouse-type structures made of tin roofs and walls of plastic sheets displaying the U.N. refugee agency's logo.
Inside, Juma Ndahiroho wraps himself up with a jacket to ward of the cold dampness. He is sitting in a partitioned-off cubicle that he shares with his wife and two children.
Ndahiroho, not his real name, came to Musasa camp last March after fleeing neighboring Rwanda. He say he was a campaigner for Rwandan opposition politician Faustin Twagiramungu during Rwanda's 2003 elections and was, as a result, harassed by members of the ruling Rwandese Patriotic Front, or RPF.
He says he and his family were followed by cars with tinted windows that he suspects were police. He claims that the Rwandan government does not tolerate different opinions, and is afraid that he and his family will be killed if they have to return to Rwanda.
Ndahiroho is one of about 18,000 Rwandan asylum seekers who live in dismal conditions at Musasa and nearby Songore center, waiting for their cases to be heard.
Rwandan asylum seekers began trickling into Burundi last March shortly after the start in Rwanda of traditional trials known as "gacaca." These trials deal at the grassroots level with perpetrators of Rwanda's 1994 genocide in which Hutu extremists killed up to 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus.
Many asylum seekers claim that the gacaca trials were unfair, they were being persecuted by the system, and they heard rumors of possible upcoming genocide revenge attacks. Others, such as Ndahiroho, said they fled because they were afraid of reprisals for opposing the government.
Last December, a commission of representatives from the U.N. refugee agency and the governments of Rwanda and Burundi began hearing the asylum seekers' cases.
Of the 1,249 applications examined, the commission accepted only 52 people, or a little less than five percent, as refugees. Earlier this month, Burundi's interior minister said his government would expel all Rwandans rejected by the commission.
Tony Garcia, a senior protection officer with the U.N. refugee agency in northern Burundi, explains why the commission turned down most of the applications.
"The stories were confusing, contradictory, when you ask the head of the family and then you ask the wife the same questions, they will tell you something else," he said. "So it was just bad credibility or poor stories; probably inventions. People knew if they are refugees they will get assistance, so they were perhaps forcing themselves to say something because otherwise they would be sent back and maybe they left because they needed food. Who knows?"
But there have been international concerns about how Rwanda's 2003 elections were conducted, the fall-out from those elections, and the way the gacaca trials are being conducted.
The London-based human rights group Amnesty International says in the run-up to the elections, the ruling party RPF detained opposition supporters, forced people to join the RPF, and issued death threats to those supporting the opposition. The group also says Rwandan authorities stifle criticisms of the Rwandan government, especially concerning the gacaca trials.
In a statement released last year, the American group Refugees International accused Rwanda of pressuring Burundi to send back the asylum seekers, primarily as a way of showing that the gacaca system is fair and just.
Retired Colonel Didace Nzikoruriho, a refugee advisor for the Ministry of Home Affairs in Burundi, says the Rwandan government is justified in taking measures that may seem repressive but are necessary to get the country back on its feet after the horrific genocide.
He denies that the Rwandan government is putting pressure on Burundi to expel the asylum seekers, saying that both governments are following U.N. procedures.
Rwandan presidential advisor Richard Sezibera tells VOA people are free to support any one of Rwanda's nine political parties without being persecuted, and that those claiming to flee the gacaca system are doing so because they want to avoid justice, not because they are being persecuted by the system.
Sezibera says it is a Rwandan government policy to encourage all Rwandans to return to their country.
"The Rwandan government has no apologies to make for wanting her citizens back. In fact, if all governments acted like Rwanda does, than maybe the refugee problem would be solved. That we vigorously invite all refugees to return is a policy of government," he said.
He also denies that the Rwandan government is pressuring Burundi to expel the Rwandan asylum seekers, but said the two governments are working closely together to make sure that these asylum seekers can return to Rwanda.