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Burundi refugees in Rwanda face repatriation

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By DANIEL S NTWALI, Special Correspondent

Burundi refugees living in Rwanda are facing the possibility of involuntarily returning home as the government urges repatriation.

This week, Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza reportedly called for the repatriation of Burundian citizens who have fled to Rwanda since March, urging them to return to Burundi within one month.

This comes as both internal and external pressure continues to pile on Nkurunziza to respect the 2000 Arusha Accord that limits the president to two five-year terms in office.

For the past three weeks, Burundians have been arriving in Rwanda’s Bugesera district in the southeast of the country amid growing political tensions fuelled by President Pierre Nkurunziza’s plans to seek a third term.

“The President (of Burundi) urged administration authorities in Kirundo, Parliamentarians elected in Kirundo constituency and natives of Kirundo province to do all they can to repatriate Burundian citizens who fled insecurity rumors in Rwanda within one month,” said Louis Kamwenubusa, Burundian President’s Deputy-Spokesman after a closed meeting President Pierre Nkurunziza held in the province of Kirundo with natives of that province, according to Xinhua News Agency.

However, this has failed to calm tensions and prevent the situation from deteriorating as the refugees who cite violence and numerous threats by pro-government militia –locally known as Imbonerakure who are in favour of a third term for the president say they will stay on in Rwanda.

The number of refugees arriving in Rwanda is continuing to rise with an average of 200- and 300 Burundian refugees arriving a day.

The groups of refugees are currently being housed in two transit centers in Gashora Sector in Bugesera and Muyira Sector in Nyanza districts. Statistics from Rwanda’s Ministry of Disaster Management and Refugee affairs (Midimar) show that by end of this week, the number of Burundian refugees – mostly children and women in the two sites had reached 3077, with children estimated at over 1399.

Rwandan officials maintain that they cannot expel Burundian refugees as the country is a signatory of the one refugee convention- which doesn’t allow any country to force asylum seekers to return home unless security is guaranteed.

Rwanda’s Minister of Disaster Management and Refugee affairs, Seraphine Mukantabana, says earlier the refugees are free to repatriate or stay in the country.

“It is up to them to decide on repatriation or stay. Those who will decide to go back will be facilitated but those who will choose to stay will be relocated from close to border as provided by the laws governing refugees,” she said.

Ms Mukantabana, downplayed fears that Rwanda’s assistance to the Burundi refugees may create tensions between two countries since the Burundian government is insisting that the conflict country is safe and the refugees should return.

She argued that Rwanda is simply following protocol since it is a signatory to the refugee status convention and the Rwanda is only responding to the needs of those seeking asylum.

This week’s meeting in Kigali with key partners including United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian agencies resolved that Rwanda should continue to receive the refugees at the two existing transit sites -Bugesera and Nyanza respectively.

However, no decision was taken regarding finding a permanent refugee camp.

“The meeting decided that stakeholders like UNHCR and other humanitarian agencies should come on board give humanitarian assistance.

The idea of transferring the refugees to a permanent refugee camp in Byumba is still pending… but this will be after the elections in Burundi. We need to be sure if they are safe to go back home,” Frederic Ntawukuriryayo, the Midimar communications officer, told The East African.

Meanwhile, the European Union (EU) has said it is deploying an electoral observation mission from April 2015 in order to guarantee an ongoing and thorough assessment of the electoral process, in close contact with other observation missions.

“The EU's support for the electoral process, through both the presence of this observation mission and the provision of financial assistance, is conceivable only if the election is inclusive, transparent, and open to all political parties and actors in a fair manner,” the EU said in a statement published recently.

“The EU invites all those involved to take steps to maintain peace and reduce tensions,” the statement says, condemning the violent events which took place in the Cibitoke province from 30 December 2014 to 3 January 2015. It also expressed concern over allegations of summary executions carried out by members of the security forces and of the youth wing of the CNDD-FDD party.

Additional reporting by Berna Namata.