(Bujumbura) - The Government of Burundi should immediately evaluate the claims of up to 400 Rwandan asylum seekers and stop all efforts to coerce them to leave the country, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch also called on Rwandan authorities to stop pressuring Burundi to force the asylum seekers to return to Rwanda.
On October 12, 2009, Burundi induced many of the asylum seekers to return to Rwanda by falsely informing them that their refugee status had been denied. Burundian authorities agreed to halt the expulsions following queries by Human Rights Watch and other organizations.
"We are glad that Burundi has agreed to follow international law and evaluate the claims of these Rwandan asylum seekers," said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "The forced deportations should stop."
The Rwandans crossed into Burundi's northern provinces of Kirundo and Ngozi over the past several months. By late September, an estimated 100 to 400 people had arrived. Human Rights Watch interviewed several of them on October 14, and they appeared to have well-founded fears of being persecuted were they to return to Rwanda.
Without individually evaluating their claims - and under significant pressure from Rwanda - Burundi's minister of interior, Edouard Nduwimana, declared on October 8 that all the Rwandans should be "rapidly expelled" from the country.
On October 12, a Burundian government delegation that included the senior adviser to the governor of Kirundo and a police commissioner met with a large group of the Rwandan asylum seekers in Kirundo and informed them, falsely, that the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) had refused them refugee status and that they had to leave the country. They were told that they would be forced out if they did not leave "voluntarily." Many reportedly left for Rwanda the next day.
Kirundo provincial authorities tried to force another 17 Rwandans to leave on the afternoon of October 14, but Burundi's new national refugee agency, the National Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless People (ONPRA), intervened to stop the deportations. On October 15, officials of that agency told Human Rights Watch that no expulsions would take place. However, Human Rights Watch subsequently received reports that the 17 Rwandans are currently unaccounted for and may have left the country under pressure from the Burundian government. Kirundo officials whom Human Rights Watch tried to reach to confirm this information did not answer their telephones.
Burundi's new refugee agency, whose mandate includes evaluating the refugee claims of asylum seekers, began operating in April. Under Burundian law, asylum seekers should lodge their claims with the agency within 30 days of arriving in the country, except in the case of force majeure (extenuating circumstances). The agency currently only has offices in the capital, Bujumbura, a trek of many days from the Rwandan border for asylum seekers, many of whom are destitute. The asylum seekers' claim to Burundian local authorities that they feared returning to Rwanda should have qualified them, in effect, as having lodged asylum claims.
The 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, to which Burundi is a state party, prohibits states from expelling or returning refugees to places where their lives or freedom would be threatened on account of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. The prohibition on forced return (refoulement) includes asylum seekers.
The African Union (formerly Organization of African Unity) Convention governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa, to which Burundi is also a state party, not only prohibits refoulement but also calls upon states parties to receive refugees and secure their settlement. It also says that "[t]he grant of asylum to refugees is a peaceful and humanitarian act and shall not be regarded as an unfriendly act by any Member State."
The interviews conducted by Human Rights Watch with several of the Rwandans indicated that some may have credible fears of persecution in Rwanda. One said he was acquitted before Rwanda's community-based gacaca courts in 2006 on charges of having burned the house of a Tutsi during the 1994 genocide. In September, though, he was summoned to respond to the same charges, was convicted, and sentenced to 30 years in prison. He fled to Burundi.
Two others gave Human Rights Watch similar accounts of being re-tried for the same crimes in gacaca courts after their cases had already been resolved. International law prohibits putting a person on trial again for an offense for which the person has already been acquitted or convicted.
Two of the Rwandans reported that their neighbors had been taken from their homes in the middle of the night and had not been seen again. They said these abductions occurred in the Matana and Mpanda sectors of Rwanda's Southern Province. One said his neighbor was abducted by Rwanda's local defense forces, a group of community residents who patrol the neighborhood as informal police but do not have authority to carry out arrests.
Burundian administrative and police officials, along with a journalist and a human rights activist, told Human Rights Watch of two separate sightings in the past month of the bodies of young men, bearing signs of physical injury, in the Kanyaru River that separates Burundi from Rwanda. Burundian media reported that residents had seen as many as five bodies. The origin of these bodies remains unclear, but their presence has heightened the fear of the asylum seekers to return to Rwanda.
Rwanda has reportedly exerted political pressure on Burundi not to provide refugee status to Rwandans. On October 15, Rwanda's ambassador to Burundi was in Kirundo province, apparently because of the expulsions.
"Burundi should make clear that no more Rwandans will be deported in violation of international law," Gagnon said. "Burundi's need for good relations with Rwanda cannot displace the obligation to protect Rwandans in Burundi who fear persecution back home."