An estimated 2,000 to 2,500 Rwandans have fled to Burundi in recent weeks, many of them arriving for the second time after previously being coerced by Burundian authorities to return home. "It's a violation of international law to push people asking for asylum back across the border without examining their claims for protection," said Alison Des Forges, senior advisor to the Africa division of Human Rights Watch. "Asylum seekers have the right to have their cases fairly determined by the appropriate authorities."
A high-ranking Burundian official told Human Rights Watch last week that the Burundian government would treat the current asylum seekers according to international law. But he also said that he was unaware that some Rwandans had been forcibly repatriated from Burundi as recently as July 12. According to local observers, Burundian army soldiers on July 12 surrounded asylum seekers who had gathered to receive a promised distribution of food in Gatsinda zone, Mwumba commune and Ngozi province, and then forced 57 of them to return to Rwanda.
In a similar incident on June 12 and 13, Rwandan and Burundian authorities had obliged more than 5,000 Rwandan asylum seekers to return to Rwanda. Some of the 2,000 to 2,500 currently reported in northern Burundi escaped the earlier roundup. Others have since fled from Rwanda a second time, while others are new arrivals.
The majority of the asylum seekers have taken shelter with Burundian families because they fear being returned to Rwanda if they make their presence known by seeking official assistance. Some 800 asylum seekers, however, took shelter at a site in Vumbi, Kirundo province. On July 22, several Rwandan and Burundian officials visited the site and used both persuasion and intimidation to try to get the Rwandans to return to their home country. In another incident, a local administrator in Mparamirundi, Ngozi province, was said to have threatened asylum seekers in an effort to make them leave for Rwanda.
"Promises from national officials mean little if local authorities continue pushing asylum seekers back across the border," said Des Forges. "Local officials, as much as national officials, must carry out Burundian obligations under international law."
Rwandan asylum seekers first entered Burundi in March and April, with some saying they feared unfair treatment in the popular courts, known as gacaca jurisdictions, that recently began trying persons accused of having participated in the 1994 genocide against Rwandan Tutsis. Others have cited threats by officials or survivors, or harassment for their political ideas, as their reasons for flight.
In late May, officials of the Burundian government and of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) agreed to transfer the asylum seekers from the border areas to Songore transit site where they could receive humanitarian assistance. But after Burundian and Rwandan authorities met in Kayanza, Burundi, on June 11, Burundian officials announced that the asylum seekers were "illegal immigrants" and must be repatriated. Within 48 hours, Burundian authorities barred UNHCR access to the camps and coerced some 5,000 asylum seekers to return to Rwanda.
Human Rights Watch said that international treaties on refugees, including the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees of 1951 and the African Refugee Convention of 1969, to which Burundi is party, state not to forcibly return persons to countries where they may face grave human rights abuse. The right to apply for asylum is enshrined in Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that "everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from prosecution."
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