BUJUMBURA, 14 June (IRIN) - Burundi has closed a transit camp in its northern province of Ngozi after thousands of Rwandan asylum seekers there returned home, the governor of Burundi's Ngozi Province told IRIN on Tuesday.
"Songore transit site is now closed, the last asylum seekers voluntary repatriated yesterday [Monday]," Felix Niragira, the governor, said.
The 4,787 Rwandans began returning home on Sunday when 1,702 of them boarded trucks, he said. The rest left on Monday.
Burundi's minister of interior, Jean Marie Ngendahayo, and the Rwandan minister of local administration and good governance, Protais Musoni, oversaw the repatriation, in the absence of international organisations including the UN refugee agency, UNHCR.
In Rwanda, the executive secretary of the southern province of Butare that borders Burundi, Aimable Twagiramutura, said the Rwandan government provided the trucks that transported the Rwandans to their homes in the province.
He said 3,500 arrived home between Sunday and Tuesday, and that 200 others remained in Burundi.
The Rwandan government is not providing any other aid to the returning nationals, he said.
Those who arrived Monday were housed in a municipal hall overnight and transported home on Tuesday.
The UNHCR public relations officer, Catherine-Lune Grayson, told IRIN on Monday in the Burundian capital, Bujumbura, that Burundi defence forces denied the refugee agency access to the Songore site, hence it was unable to state whether or not the asylum seekers were forced to return home.
However, Niragira confirmed reports of six asylum seekers who jumped out of the trucks after leaving Songore and hid inside Burundi.
"Those [the escapees] certainly have something to account for in their country," he said.
Burundian Radio Isanganiro reported on Tuesday that 600 other Rwandans were repatriated Tuesday from the northeastern province of Muyinga.
The Rwandans' repatriation follows a meeting on Saturday in Burundi's northern province of Kayanza between Rwandan and Burundian officials, during which they decided to re-label asylum seekers from both countries as "illegal immigrants". The meeting was held behind closed doors, and in the absence of UNHCR officials.
Ngendahayo, who headed Burundi delegation, said after the meeting there was "no objective reason that could justify their presence on Burundian or Rwandan soil".
He added, "They are all illegal immigrants and should be treated in accordance to their status."
The Burundian and Rwandan officials issued a joint statement after the Saturday meeting, saying "all measures" would be taken to ensure that they were repatriated without delay. They set 13 June as the last day of repatriation.
On 25 May, officials from both countries held a meeting in Rwanda's Butare Province and decided to gather all the Rwandan asylum seekers at the Songore transit camp, where they could be assisted. On Monday, Grayson described this decision as a "step backward".
She said Burundi should respect international conventions and the principle of unforced repatriation.
The Rwandans started arriving in northern Burundi in April, fleeing Rwanda's traditional justice system, known as "Gacaca". Burundi had started transferring some of them farther inland to the eastern province of Cankuzo but the operations were stopped after Rwanda protested that the people were not refugees but fugitives.
Rwanda hosts 6,623 Burundian asylum seekers, who fled their homes following hunger and rumours of attacks in two provinces in the north.
At the Saturday meeting, Burundian and Rwandan officials also termed these Burundian illegal immigrants and said they would be repatriated soon. Ngendahayo said the repatriation of the Burundians would start soon after legislative elections scheduled for 4 July.
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