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(New York) - Thousands of Rwandans seeking asylum in Burundi, most of them women and children, must not be coerced to return home without having their asylum claims fairly examined.

The asylum seekers are Hutu, as were the assailants who slaughtered about three-quarters of the Tutsi living in Rwanda in 1994. But about half the Rwandans who fled to Burundi are children, too young to have participated in the 1994 killings.

The asylum seekers say they fear unfair treatment in Rwanda by local people’s courts, called gacaca. Just three months ago, these courts began to try persons accused of participating in the 1994 genocide. Some of the asylum seekers say they also fear violence from Rwandan government officials or from genocide survivors who had threatened them.

“Rwandans implicated in the genocide must be brought before a fair trial. But the mere act of fleeing from Rwanda is not an admission of guilt,” said Alison Des Forges, senior Africa adviser at Human Rights Watch. “International law requires that all asylum seekers must have a fair hearing of their reasons for seeking protection abroad.”

Rwandan asylum seekers in Burundi, who began fleeing Rwanda in late March, numbered some 7,000 by early May. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) moved about 2,000 of them to two official sites to afford them better security and access to assistance.

In late April, Burundian authorities halted the transfer of the asylum seekers. Together with Rwandan officials, the Burundian authorities tried to persuade asylum seekers to return home. When persuasion failed, Burundian authorities closed four of the seven sites where asylum seekers had gathered. Burundian soldiers and police coerced and threatened asylum seekers, insisting they must return to Rwanda. In some cases, they beat the Rwandans, overturned their cooking pots, and tore down their shelters.

At the Gatsinda site north-east of the capital Bujumbura, a member of the Burundian armed forces raped a 20-year-old female asylum seeker.

Under international law, all persons have a right to seek asylum and have their claims fairly examined. However, those responsible for acts of genocide or certain other grave international crimes may be excluded from refugee status.

A schoolgirl—who would have been seven years old at the time of the genocide—told a Human Rights Watch researcher in Burundi that she fled Rwanda with three other schoolmates several weeks ago, making the 30-mile trek to the border on foot. She had been frightened, she said, by hearing an official publicly denounce people getting higher education. According to her, he warned that educated people “will train others to kill.” During the genocide many community leaders, some of them well-educated, led the attacks.

Under coercion, most Rwandans left the sites in Burundi during the second week in May, but asylum seekers have gathered again at the sites. Some returned to the sites after hiding for several days in the vicinity; some went back to Rwanda and then returned to Burundi, claiming to have met new threats at home. Other asylum seekers just arrived from Rwanda for the first time.

Most of the asylum seekers are housed in makeshift sites near the border where they have received only minimal distributions of food and water. Malnutrition and disease are serious risks in these conditions.

“Burundian authorities should permit the asylum seekers to be transferred to UNHCR camps where they can be safe and better cared for,” said Des Forges. “And they must begin hearings to decide which claimants have a right to asylum.”

Most who fled to Burundi came from the province of Butare in southern Rwanda. Hundreds of other Rwandans from the eastern part of the country tried to flee to Tanzania. Earlier this month Tanzanian officials sent some 35 Rwandans back to their country without examining their claims for asylum.

International treaties on refugees including the African Refugee Convention of 1969, to which both Burundi and Tanzania are parties, oblige states not to forcibly return persons to countries where they may face grave human rights abuse. After protest from the UNHCR, Tanzanian authorities agreed not to send asylum seekers back to Rwanda without examining the basis of their claims for asylum.

More than a thousand Rwandans have also fled to Uganda, where they were settled in a refugee camp.

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