GENEVA, April 17 (UNHCR) – The UN refugee agency reported on Friday that pre-election violence and intimidation in Burundi has triggered a recent rise in the number of people seeking asylum in neighbouring Rwanda and Democratic Republic of the Congo.
"In all, more than 8,000 Burundians have sought refuge in these two countries over the past two weeks; 7,099 in Rwanda and a smaller number in Democratic Republic of the Congo," UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards told journalists in Geneva, adding that mounting violence and insecurity were cited as the reason for fleeing.
In Rwanda, the main arrivals have been from Kirundo province in Burundi's north. More than 60 per cent are children. Many have arrived with very little. UNHCR, working with the Rwandan government and other partners, has been providing assistance.
The Burundians have reported incidents of harassment and disappearance of family members who were associated with the political opposition. People also speak of alleged forced recruitment by the Imbonerakure militant youth group, which has been accused of politically motivated violence.
"With political tension rising and more acts of violence being reported, UNHCR is concerned that more people may flee over the next weeks in the run up to the general elections," Edwards noted. The elections, for the presidency, parliament, senate and local councils are scheduled to begin in May and end in July.
In early April, a ministerial delegation from Burundi visited the newly arrived asylum-seekers in Rwanda to talk to them and urge them to return home. They responded, however, that they feared for their lives and that they wished to seek refuge in Rwanda.
The asylum-seekers are now being hosted in two reception centres in Nyanza and Bugesera districts in southern Rwanda. Because of the proximity of the centres to the Burundian border, UNHCR and the Government of Rwanda are identifying a potential site for a new camp where they can be relocated.
UNHCR and its partners have been providing basic assistance in the reception centres. Included among the arrivals have been more than 100 pregnant women, and two have given birth. UNHCR has started biometric registration, which is key to the protection of refugees, but it has been a challenge to keep pace with the rate of arrivals.
"Essential items such as plastic sheets, mosquito nets, blankets, mattresses, jerry cans and soap are being distributed to help families cope. As many people fled at night, and on foot, they brought very few belongings and are in need of clothing, which UNHCR will distribute next week. In collaboration with WFP [World Food Programme], we provide high energy biscuits and hot meals to all newly-arrived families," Edwards said.
Rwanda is already hosting more than 74,000 refugees, mostly from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
In the DRC itself, some 1,060 Burundian asylum-seekers have arrived in South Kivu so far this month. The majority crossed into Uvira and Fizi territories, in the south of the province. They also told us that they fled in fear of persecution and insecurity linked to Burundi's current political situation.
Together with the National Commission for Refugees, UNHCR has set up monitoring teams and reinforced its border monitoring. The newly arrived asylum-seekers are currently living with host families in South Kivu. In addition to the Burundians, 325 of those who've crossed the border into DRC have been returning Congolese nationals, also fleeing fear of election-related violence.