Some 5,000 Rwandan asylum seekers in Burundi were sent back to Rwanda over the past two days (Sunday and Monday), leaving the Songore transit centre in northern Burundi empty. UNHCR was not allowed access to the transit centre when the departures were taking place on Monday and cannot confirm that the returns were voluntary.
UNHCR deeply regrets that despite our repeated appeals for restraint and our commitment to the highest levels of both governments to work with them to find a constructive solution in accordance with international law, the Burundian and Rwandan authorities pressed ahead with the return operation and denied us access.
Access to persons of concern is an integral part of UNHCR's mandate. Without it, we cannot fulfill our protection role. The decision to deny UNHCR access to Songore 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 and informed decision by each of them. In addition, other UN agencies and NGOs were not allowed to monitor the developments from early Monday morning onward.
The circumstances in which the return operation was conducted, as well as the experiences of the last weeks, lead to the conclusion that the asylum seekers had no other option but to return. Therefore, UNHCR cannot consider their return as voluntary, and hence it constitutes a violation of the principle of non-refoulement that is enshrined in the 1951 Refugee Convention, to which both Burundi and Rwanda are signatories.
The return operation from Songore started on Sunday, following an announcement by Burundi and Rwanda that the two countries were re-labelling asylum seekers as "illegal immigrants" even though no individual examination of the asylum claims had taken place. UNHCR staff were at Songore on Sunday, when some 800 people left aboard Rwandan trucks. Our staff did not witness any instance of physical force being used against the asylum seekers on Sunday.
However, when our team arrived on Monday morning, they were denied access to the centre and had to monitor the situation from outside. They witnessed trucks full of asylum seekers leaving the centre throughout the day. Some of the asylum seekers reportedly were seen jumping from the trucks en route to the border. By the end of the afternoon Monday, the authorities said that all 4,787 Rwandans at Songore had left the centre, headed for Rwanda. Initial information from Rwanda this morning indicates the returnees were taken to the town of Butare. Most of them apparently spent the night in a stadium, while others were reportedly at a military barracks. They were taken to their home villages this morning.
The Rwandan asylum seekers first began arriving in Burundi in March this year, citing fears and threats surrounding the local 'gacaca' tribunals looking into the 1994 genocide in their homeland. UNHCR had continuously appealed to the Burundian authorities to relocate them to a safer site away from the border, and offered assistance to the highest levels of both governments to find a constructive solution.
UNHCR is also concerned about the fate of some 7,000 Burundian refugees in Rwanda. Under this weekend's agreement between the two countries, they too are now considered "illegal immigrants" and we fear they could be returned to their homeland against their will. We strongly urge Rwanda to refrain from any such initiative and ask that the refugees be fairly treated under the terms of the 1951 Convention and the 1969 OAU Convention.