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Letter to Burundian Minister of the Interior Edouard Nduwimana on Rwandan Asylum Seekers

Edouard Nduwimana
Minister of Interior
Ministry of the Interior

Your Excellence,

On behalf of Human Rights Watch, we write to ask you to ensure that all Rwandan asylum seekers currently present in northern Burundi are permitted to file asylum applications, in accordance with their rights under Burundian and international law. We also urge you to ensure that, in the future, all Rwandan and other asylum seekers, both those currently in the country or those who might still arrive, are able to freely lodge asylum claims.

Human Rights Watch has closely followed the situation of several hundred Rwandan asylum seekers in northern Burundi, most of whom arrived in Burundi between July and September 2009. We welcome the fact that the National Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons (ONPRA) has recently heard the asylum claims of 60 Rwandan families and that it has allowed them to appeal their rejected applications, in line with Burundi's new refugee law. However, we are concerned by your November 17 statement to a Human Rights Watch researcher that other Rwandan families currently in Burundi who have not yet filed asylum applications will no longer have the right to do so.

Our immediate concern is the fate of approximately 77 Rwandans in Kirundo province. They arrived in Burundi over the last several months and have stayed with Burundian families. Although they did not file asylum applications as soon as they arrived in Burundi on November 10, when they finally arrived in Kirundo intending to file their applications, the police attempted to deport them. They refused to board police trucks and have remained in Kirundo ever since, even after a second deportation attempt on November 19. Police and other provincial authorities seem to have provided the Rwandans with little information about how to file asylum applications.

Government and civil society sources and journalists in Kirundo who have spoken with many of the 77 Rwandans told Human Rights Watch that they initially hesitated to come forward to file applications out of fear they would be immediately arrested and expelled from the country. This fear may have resulted in part from your October 8 statement that Rwandan asylum seekers should be "rapidly expelled." (We commend your revised position on October 20 stating that their claims could be heard by Burundi's National Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless People.) The asylum seekers' fear was also likely heightened by the attempted expulsion of a group of 14 to 17 Rwandans from Bugabira commune in Kirundo on October 14. This group was falsely informed by provincial administrative and police officials that the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) had denied their claims. The presence of the Rwandan ambassador in Burundi in Kirundo on several occasions, including October 14 and 15, likely also contributed to the Rwandans' sense that they could not apply for asylum.

On November 18, a human rights monitor from a Burundian organization interviewed several of the 77 Rwandans in Kirundo who, according to your statements to Human Rights Watch on November 17, are considered "illegal immigrants" and should be sent back to Rwanda. The human rights monitor found that his interlocutors expressed fear of returning to Rwanda because neighbors had been abducted from their homes at night and disappeared.

Burundian refugee and asylum law, revised in a series of new laws in 2008 and 2009, allows asylum seekers 30 days to file asylum applications once they arrive on Burundian soil (Ordonnance Ministerielle No 530/442 du 7 Avril 2009 sur les Mesures d'Application de la Loi No. 1/32 du13 November 2008 sur l'Asile et la Protection des Réfugiés au Burundi et Portant sur les Procédures de Demande d'Asile, article 2,).

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is broadly accepted as customary international law, provides in article 14(1) that "[e]veryone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution."

Although Burundi may set deadlines for the filing of asylum applications, the ExCom, UNHCR's governing body of member states, has stated that missing deadlines should not, by itself, exclude an asylum claim from consideration: "While asylum seekers may be required to submit their asylum claim requests within a certain time limit, failure to do so, or the non-fulfillment of other formal requirements, should not lead to an asylum request being excluded from consideration."(UNHCR ExCom Conclusion 15 (XXX), 1979).

A failure by any state to respect this principle would lead to refoulement (forced return), prohibited under the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, to which Burundi is a party. The convention 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 covers asylum seekers.

The African Union Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa (AU Refugee Convention), to which Burundi is also a party, not only prohibits refoulement, but also calls upon states parties to receive refugees and secure their settlement. It 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." 

Finally, the principle of non-refoulement is enshrined in articles 19 and 20 of Loi No. 1/32 du 13 November 2008 sur l'Asile et la Protection des Réfugiés au Burundi.

Human Rights Watch is concerned that political calculations might have played a role in the Burundian government's treatment of the 77 Rwandan asylum seekers. Several Burundian government sources have told Human Rights Watch that at least three different Rwandan officials put significant pressure on Burundi in the past two months to return any Rwandan asylum seekers, and that such pressure might have contributed to your initial statement on October 8 that the Rwandans should be rapidly expelled.

Human Rights Watch also learned that after Burundi's Consultative Commission for Foreigners and Refugees rejected the first 60 asylum claims as "manifestly unfounded," the government seriously considered denying them their right to appeal. Although, fortunately, this plan was abandoned, we are concerned that the underlying political dynamics remain unchanged, and might pose a threat to other Rwandan asylum seekers.

We understand that Burundi has an interest in maintaining a positive relationship with Rwanda, but political considerations by either Rwanda or Burundi should play no role in determining the status of asylum seekers. Human Rights Watch urges you to ensure that the approximately 77 Rwandan asylum seekers in Kirundo are allowed to file their asylum applications.

We would like to take the opportunity to thank you for your honest collaboration with Human Rights Watch and your willingness to discuss human rights issues affecting Burundi. We look forward to your response and your clarification of Burundi's policies and plans concerning the Rwandans in northern Burundi.


Georgette Gagnon
Director, Africa Dvision

Bill Frelick
Director, Refugees Division

CC: President Pierre Nkurunziza
First Vice President Dr. Yves Sahinguvu
Second Vice President Gabriel Ntisezerana
Minister of Public Security Alain-Guillaume Bunyoni
Col. Didace Nzikuriho, Coordinator, ONPRA

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