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Rwanda Forcibly Repatriating Congolese Refugees, Charges UNHCR - 2002-09-13

The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR, is complaining that Rwanda continues to force refugees back to unsafe areas in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, despite requests to stop. The UNHCR says more than 7,000 refugees have been returned against their will in the last two weeks.

U.N. refugee spokesman Kris Janowski said the agency has been asking the Rwandan government to stop forcing the refugees back to north Kivu. But, he said, the operation is continuing.

The north Kivu area is under the control of the rebel Congolese Rally for Democracy, an ally of the Rwandan government. Mr. Janowski said the rebels are making it difficult for aid workers to get access to the refugees who have returned. "We actually had a team of colleagues going up to a place where they are being accommodated," he said. "We were allowed to enter the place, but only under condition that we do not talk to the refugees, which, of course, made it somewhat useless."

Mr. Janowski said the returnees are living in miserable conditions. Aid workers report the water and sanitation situation is worsening. They say the majority of families are living in three run down buildings in an unused tea factory. Others have put up tents in the surrounding hills.

The refugees are being returned from two camps in Rwanda which house about 32,000 refugees. The Rwandan government insists the refugees are returning to the Congo of their own free will. But Mr. Janowski said Rwanda is definitely pressuring them to leave. "They seem to be told, especially at the local level in Rwanda, that if they do not go now, they will get no help of any kind of any aid because the [Non-Governmental Organizations] will not be working in the camps anymore," he said. "They basically told them that if they do not go, they will not be looked after anymore. This is not true because the NGO's will continue to be there and, if allowed to, will certainly try and keep helping them."

Reports from Rwanda indicate that sections of one camp have been vacated and destroyed.

UNHCR Spokesman Janowski said some of the camp residents have fled to surrounding Rwandan villages to avoid being returned. He said the Congolese refugees spend the night outdoors before boarding trucks, which come to the camps early in the morning.

The Congolese refugees are mainly ethnic Tutsis from the eastern Kivu region of Congo. They arrived in Rwanda between 1995 and 1996 to escape persecution by Hutu militias who had fled Rwanda in the wake of the 1994 genocide.