Burundi, Rwanda Violate International Obligations
Burundi, Rwanda Violate International Obligations – UN Refugee Agency
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) today charged that the governments of Burundi and Rwanda were in violation of their obligations under international conventions on refugees, after some 5,000 Rwandan asylum seekers in Burundi were sent back to Rwanda on Sunday and Monday.
“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,” a UNHCR spokesman said from Geneva.
Without access to the asylum seekers, the spokesman explained, there was no way of knowing whether their return was truly voluntary. The circumstances of the past week, in fact, lead to the conclusion that they had no other option but to return.
“Therefore,” he said, “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 both signatories.”
The return operation followed a joint weekend announcement by Burundi and Rwanda that the two countries were re-labeling asylum seekers as "illegal immigrants.” The Rwandan asylum seekers first began arriving in Burundi in March this year, citing fears over the local 'gacaca' tribunals looking into the 1994 genocide in their homeland.
UNHCR is also concerned about the fate of some 7,000 Burundian refugees in Rwanda, the spokesman said, since they too are now considered "illegal immigrants" and the agency feared that they could be returned 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,” he said, referring to the refugee agreement of the Organization of African Unity.