Refugee return criticised

Washington has called on the central African countries to halt what it called the forced return of refugees and asked that camps be established away from border areas to Burundi’s interior until claims for asylum can be heard.

“The United States deplores the involuntary return of 10,000 Rwandan asylum-seekers from Burundi, which is in violation of both the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and the 1969 Organisation of African Union Convention on Refugees to which Rwanda and Burundi are parties,” US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.

Ron Redmond, a spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), criticised the operation, saying the commission’s staff had been kept away during the deportations.

“The decision to deny UNHCR access while the return operation was being conducted prevented us from communicating directly with the asylum-seekers to establish whether their return was indeed based on a truly voluntary decision by each of them,” Mr Redmond said.

“The circumstances in which the return operation was conducted lead to the conclusion that the asylum-seekers had no other option but to return.”

It is estimated that between 8,000 and 12,000 Rwandans, mainly ethnic Hutus, have fled into neighbouring Burundi since March.

Many fear persecution by grassroot ‘gacaca’ courts which are trying suspects in the 1994 genocide in which 800,000 people, mostly minority Tusis, were slain by Hutu extremists.

The presence of refugees in Burundi angered Rwanda’s government in Kigali, which demanded their return, branding them ‘fugitives from justice’.

In April, Rwanda and Burundi reached an agreement outlining a plan for the voluntary return of refugees, with any future Rwandan asylum-seekers to be treated as ‘illegal immigrants’.

However, the relocation began two days ahead of schedule.

Witnesses have reportedly spoken of people being forced into trucks and driven away under guard by Burundian troops, ostensibly to prevent possible escapes.

The UNHCR has also expressed concern for the 7,000 Burundian refugees living in Rwanda, who have likewise been labelled illegal immigrants.