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UNHCR alarmed by Rwanda's and Burundi's decision to re-label refugees as illegal immigrants

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News and Press Release
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GENEVA - The UN refugee agency said on Monday it was alarmed by the possible implications of a decision by the governments of Rwanda and Burundi to re-label each other's refugees and asylum seekers as "illegal immigrants."

In a joint press release, published at the end of a ministerial-level meeting between the neighbouring central African states, which was held at the weekend in Kayanza, Burundi, the two governments declared that the Rwandans currently sheltering in Burundi, and the Burundians currently sheltering in Rwanda, had left their home countries "without good reason," and were therefore illegal immigrants rather than refugees.

In both cases, the press release said, "all measures will be taken to ensure that these people are repatriated without delay" to their respective home countries.

"We're not sure what exactly is intended," said UNHCR's Director for Africa, David Lambo. "If they are summarily sent back without a proper procedure to determine whether or not they are refugees, then that could well be in contravention of international refugee law, and in particular the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and the 1969 OAU Convention."

The UNHCR Representatives in both Burundi and Rwanda had been invited to attend the meeting in Kayanza, and attempted to do so. However, they were not in the end admitted to the meeting, and after it was over were simply handed the press release containing the meeting's conclusions.

UNHCR has been holding intense discussions on these issues with both governments over the past few weeks, Lambo said, adding that the agency had recently informed each of them at the highest levels that it is still committed to work with them to find a constructive solution to a situation that is of concern to all. "However, these high-level communications also stressed it's vital that they uphold the principles of asylum and non-refoulement," he said.

UNHCR has recently expressed concerns over the fate of more than 6,000 Rwandan asylum seekers who have been transferred to Songore transit centre since starting to arrive in Burundi in March 2005.

In total, there are some 8,000 Rwandan refugees and asylum seekers in Burundi and close to 7,000 Burundians in Rwanda.