The UN refugee agency says it is alarmed by the possible implications of a decision reached over the weekend by the governments of Rwanda and Burundi.
The UNHCR says it has been informed that the two governments have decided to re-label each other?s refugees and asylum seekers as illegal immigrants. Rwanda and Burundi have released a joint statement saying that they had left their homes to seek shelter in neighboring countries for ?no good reason.?
Marie Ellen Vernay is a spokesperson for the UNHCR. From Geneva, she tells English to Africa reporter Joe De Capua about new developments.
She says, ?The latest situation is that the main transit center, which housed 6,000 asylum seekers, is now empty. Every one of the asylum seekers has gone back to Rwanda.?
Asked whether they returned voluntarily, she says, ?Well, that?s a good question. The problem is that UNHCR has been denied access to the transit center on Monday. Our team turned up there this morning and were denied access. So, we were not able to verify whether or not the returns were voluntary. It?s a big concern for us. We called on Burundi to show some restraint and, in fact, the result was that people were returned home voluntarily or not. We?re not able to verify.?
The situation began to take shape over the weekend. Ms. Vernay says, ?On Saturday, Burundi and Rwanda said that as of now asylum seekers in both their countries would be regarded as illegal migrants. They said that these people did not have any reason to leave their country, and therefore had entered for reasons that would not be recognized under international law. UNHCR?s position is that these people came to Burundi from Rwanda, saying that they had come under threat. And that they were concerned because of the legal process looking into the 1994 genocide. They feared that they would be unfairly accused.?
The UNHCR spokesperson says those claiming to be asylum seekers should have been allowed some type of hearing on the merits of their case before returning home.