Bujumbura, Burundi - "As you are aware, the United Nations has, over the past few weeks, been monitoring developments between Rwanda and Burundi, especially following the arrival in Burundi of Rwandans seeking asylum for reasons that were not necessarily very obvious. Our stand has always been that the region does not need another refugee crisis." These were the introductory remarks made by Carolyn McAskie, Special Representative of the Secretary-General, at the press conference devoted to the repatriation of nearly 8,000 Rwandans since last weekend.
In early April, groups of hundreds of Rwandans entered Burundi and gradually settled in Kirundo, Ngozi, Kayanza and Muyinga provinces which border Rwanda. Although no real reason was given for this massive exodus, it was alleged that the asylum seekers were fleeing from the Gacaca tribunals which are trying alleged perpetrators of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. The unexpected influx of youths, women and children caused considerable humanitarian and logistic problems. Humanitarian organisations, with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in the lead, as well as ONUB and Burundian authorities, pooled their efforts to lend assistance to the asylum seekers pending the finding of a lasting solution. In the mean time, the asylum seekers were kept at sites in Songoré (Ngozi province), Cankuzo and Muyinga. Then, after a secret meeting between Rwandan and Burundian authorities on the weekend of 11 June, the asylum seekers were declared "illegal immigrants" and ordered to return to Rwanda. Admittedly, the two governments deployed resources to ensure their return to Rwanda. Within one week, approximately 8,000 Rwandan immigrants were thus repatriated.
The United Nations was shocked by this measure which violates international law in matters relating to refugees. According to the Special Representative of the UN, "From the United Nations viewpoint, this act violates international agreements governing the treatment of refugees or asylum seekers. We do not understand why the two countries classified these people as illegal immigrants."
Kofi Annan, Secretary-General of the United Nations, also said he is "very concerned by this measure which violates international law, in particular the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Rights in Africa adopted in 1974 by the OAU, now African Union."
During a visit on Tuesday, 14 June, to Muyinga province, which hosted the largest number of asylum seekers, Ms. McAskie witnessed the departure of several hundreds of them. She used the opportunity to reiterate the Secretary-General's message to the local authorities.
The UN is not against refugees or asylum seekers returning to their countries provided that repatriation is conducted in strict compliance with the norms of international law which entail, among other things, respect for human dignity. In this regard, Ms. McAskie recalled that, following the 1994 genocide in Rwanda during which thousands of lives were lost, "we unreservedly support Rwanda's efforts in seeking to resolve all problems by instituting judicial mechanisms to deal with these issues." In concluding, she explained that, "We do not intend to scuttle the judicial process in Rwanda, but we think that, if Rwanda and Burundi want to end impunity in the region, they must start by respecting legal instruments. Ending impunity means that they should follow the procedures to which they committed themselves at the international level. That is the message of the United Nations."
Isabelle ABRIC, Chef, Information Publique/
Chief, Public Information
Penangnini TOURE, Porte-parole/ Spokesperson
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