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Rwanda, Burundi Re-Label Refugees as 'Illegals'

UN Alarmed As Rwanda and Burundi Re-Label Refugees As 'Illegal Immigrants'

New York, Jun 13 2005 2:00PM

Ignoring pleas from the United Nations refugee agency, Burundi and Rwanda today pressed ahead with an operation to return thousands of Rwandan asylum seekers to their homeland, following a joint announcement this weekend by both governments that the Rwandans were illegal immigrants rather than refugees.

Reacting to the joint statement that the refugees and asylum seekers as would be re-labelled illegal immigrants who had left their home countries "without good reason," the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) expressed alarm, and warned that the decision to re-label refugees could well be in contravention of international refugee law, particularly the 1951 UN Refugee Convention.

"The latest decision of the Burundian authorities to conduct a return operation of thousands of asylum seekers while denying UNHCR access to them puts into question the voluntary nature of the returns," said UNHCR's director for Africa, David Lambo.

Rwandan asylum-seekers first arrived in Burundi in March, citing fears over traditional local courts, or gacaca tribunals, looking into the 1994 genocide by Hutu extremists that took the lives of some 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus. They also cited threats of intimidation, persecution and rumours of revenge as reasons for leaving home. The refugees built makeshift shelters just inside the border in Burundi.

As of this afternoon, the Songore transit centre in northern Burundi was empty, its former residents headed for Rwanda in several truck convoys, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Burundian officials said that all returns from Songore, which until last week hosted some 6,000 Rwandans – although built to house only 800 people – were voluntary. However, it denied UNHCR access to the departure site.

In addition, UNHCR says, eyewitnesses report seeing some asylum seekers jump off the trucks while en route to the border.

Prior to the latest returns, Burundi had hosted some 8,000 Rwandan refugees and asylum seekers. Rwanda hosts close to 7,000 Burundians.

ENDS

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