(Bujumbura) - Burundi's government should immediately reverse a new policy of deporting Rwandan asylum seekers without considering their cases, Human Rights Watch said today. On November 27, 2009, Interior Minister Edouard Nduwimana ordered police to return 103 asylum seekers to Rwanda, in violation of international law.
Burundi's decision came days after an official delegation from Rwanda told the Burundian government that recently arrived Rwandans should be sent back to Rwanda, the Burundi state news agency reported. Officials were quoted as saying that they wanted to protect Rwanda's international image as a peaceful country that does not produce refugees. Several Burundian officials, who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation, told Human Rights Watch that Rwanda had an important role in the returns.
"Asylum seekers are entitled to an objective assessment of whether they would face persecution upon returning home," said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "Both national and international law guarantee these assessments, and Rwanda and Burundi should not be meddling in the process."
The 103 deported asylum seekers were among several hundred Rwandans who fled to Burundi's northern provinces of Kirundo and Ngozi, most between July and September. In October, Human Rights Watch interviewed several Rwandan asylum seekers in Kirundo province, some of whom appeared to have credible fears of persecution in Rwanda, including the risk of being unlawfully tried twice for the same crime by Rwanda's community-based gacaca courts and the fear of being "disappeared." Some reported that fellow villagers had been taken at night from their homes in Rwanda's Southern province by unknown persons or by local defense forces.
Although 60 families (approximately 115 people) who said they were fleeing violence and repression in Rwanda managed to claim asylum in late October, others, perhaps owing to a fear of immediate deportation, did not come forward to lodge their claims until November 10.
On November 17, Interior Minister Edouard Nduwimana told Human Rights Watch that the claims of this latter group had been filed "too late" and that the Rwandans would be deported. He informed Human Rights Watch that no new cases would be heard, explaining, "We consider them illegals. We spent enough time waiting for them to come forward. They should have taken that responsibility." Nduwimana signed a communiqué confirming his decision on November 23, four days before the Rwandans were deported.
International refugee law allows asylum seekers to pursue claims even if they are not submitted within the host nation's required time frame. Both international refugee and human rights law prohibit refoulement, sending persons to a country where they would risk persecution, inhuman or degrading treatment, or other serious human rights abuses.
Burundi is a state party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, which 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. Burundi's own refugee law (Loi n°1/32 du 13 novembre 2008 sur l'Asile et la Protection des réfugiés au Burundi, articles 19 and 20) provides similar protection.
The African Union 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 nations 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."
A journalist from African Public Radio who observed the deportations from Kirundo province on November 27 said that large numbers of police and soldiers surrounded the site where 136 Rwandan asylum seekers had been staying for three weeks. The Kirundo governor read aloud the interior minister's statement of November 23 - saying none of the Rwandans in the group would be allowed to lodge asylum claims - and then instructed police to force them onto trucks. Thirty-three of the asylum seekers fled the site.
The journalist said that when the remaining 103 refused to board the trucks, police struck several of them with clubs and forced all of them to board. They were driven to the Rwandan border and turned over to four officials from Rwanda's Southern province. A police official told Human Rights Watch that at least three of the deported asylum seekers were unaccompanied children, whose parents had stayed behind in Kirundo.
One week earlier, on November 19 and 20, the Rwandan government delegation had visited Burundi to urge the authorities to send home all the Rwandans who had recently crossed the border into Burundi's northern provinces. The report by the Burundian state news agency, Agence Burundaise de la Presse, said that the governor of Rwanda's Southern province stated that the "illegals'" presence in Burundi was damaging to Rwanda's image and that they should be sent home.
On November 21, Human Rights Watch wrote to Minister Nduwimana and reminded him and other Burundian authorities that international and Burundian law prohibits refoulement. This prohibition covers all asylum seekers, including those who have not lodged their asylum claims within deadlines set by national legislation.
An official from Burundi's refugee agency, National Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons (ONPRA), told Human Rights Watch that the decision was intended to prevent further influxes of Rwanda's "peasant masses."
"Burundi has a moral and legal obligation to receive Rwandans who fear for their lives," Gagnon said. "In violation of the law, and because of political concerns, it is now sending the message that Rwandans wishing to flee their country are not welcome in Burundi."
Between July and September, hundreds of Rwandans, most from Rwanda's Southern province, arrived in Burundi's Kirundo and Ngozi provinces.
On October 8, Interior Minister Nduwimana declared that all recently arrived Rwandans - then estimated at 300 to 400 individuals - should be "rapidly expelled" from the country. On October 12, the government forced an unknown number of Rwandan asylum seekers to return to Rwanda, by falsely informing them that the United Nations refugee agency had decided they were not refugees.
Following queries by Human Rights Watch and other organizations, including the UN refugee agency (which funds Burundi's refugee agency and helped draft Burundi's new refugee laws), the Burundian authorities agreed to halt all further deportations and to review all Rwandan asylum seekers' claims on a case-by-case basis, as required by Burundian law. In late October, 60 families lodged asylum claims and were individually interviewed by the country's refugee agency.
All 60 claims were denied by a newly established government commission that works alongside the refugee agency, and Nduwimana initially proposed blocking the families' right to appeal, although he later changed his decision. Thirty-six of the 60 have filed appeals. They remain in the country pending the evaluation and resolution of their appeals.
Meanwhile, Agence Burundaise de la Presse reported at least 70 more Rwandan asylum seekers who had been in hiding in households in the communes of Vumbi, Ntega, and Marangara for several months tried to claim asylum in the town of Kirundo on November 10. Many of them had not initially come forward out of fear that they would be deported immediately.
Instead of registering their claims, the police, who by law are supposed to serve as a "first point of contact" for asylum seekers and refer them to the refugee agency, tried to deport them. When the asylum seekers refused, the police left. The following week, refugee agency officials gave the Rwandans forms to fill out asking for basic information, but did not conduct individual interviews, as required by Burundi's refugee law. These were among the 103 asylum seekers illegally deported on November 27.