Rwanda, Burundi Refugee Deportation Causes Uproar

Published: 1 Jul 2005


When the meeting between Burundian and Rwandan government officials on Saturday June 11 ended, a decision had been reached. The two sides had decided to rename asylum seekers from both countries as “illegal immigrants” and treat them accordingly. What followed was a quick operation to deport thousands of Rwandan asylum seekers from Burundi.

About 5,000 asylum seekers were returned to Rwanda from the Songore transit camp in Burundi’s northern Ngozi Province in a period of two days. The return was overseen by Burundi’s minister of the interior, Jean Marie Ngendahayo, and Rwanda’s minister of local administration, Protais Musoni.

The UNHCR and local refugee organizations were denied access to refugee camps and were only able to monitor repatriation process from afar. Despite the lack of organized monitoring, eyewitnesses reported seeing Rwandan asylum seekers jumping out of the trucks bringing them back to their country.

The return of the asylum seekers, as well as lingering questions about the agreement and its future implementation, has left the UNHCR and others in the international community uneasy. The return operation certainly did not meet international standards requiring that refugee returns be voluntary.

The international refugee rights regime requires that everyone seeking asylum have the opportunity to have his or her claim assessed before being returned. The UNHCR has lamented that no individual investigations were taken into asylum seekers’ claims and that it was denied permission to monitor the repatriation operation. Under these circumstances, UNHCR announced that it could not consider the repatriation voluntary and that, therefore, it “constitutes a violation of the principle of non-refoulement.”

International humanitarian organizations called for increased monitoring of the situation in Rwanda in the aftermath of the repatriation. In a letter to US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, the NGOs urged the US government to push the Rwanda government for assurances that of the safety and dignity of the returnees.

The asylum seekers who were repatriated from Songore were, according to the United Nations, among over 8,000 Hutu Rwandans who have sought asylum in Burundi since March of this year. One of the most frequent concerns cited by the asylum seekers was the threat of unfair prosecutions at the hands of the gacaca tribunals, traditional communal courts that have been set up to try extremist Hutus linked to the 1994 genocide. The Rwandan government claims that the asylum seekers are merely trying to evade justice, but those who have fled say that the courts are being used manipulated against them.

The gacaca court system was officially launched in March of this year (after a nearly three-year pilot phase which touched only 10 % of the country). Gacaca is based upon a traditional form of communal public hearings used to resolve conflicts. The aim of the gacaca is both to condemn those involved in the 1994 genocide, and to begin to pave the way to reconciliation. It also represents perhaps the only realistic chance for many suspects to receive a timely trial.

Many human rights organizations, however, have concerns about the process. In a December 2002 report, Amnesty International warned that the success of the gacaca tribunals and the entire national reconciliation process at large depended on the government’s capacity to implement adequate international human rights standards in the gacaca process. On the contrary, Amnesty found that arbitrary arrests, unlawful detentions and false allegations have been characteristic of Rwanda’s post-genocide justice system.

Attendance at the gacaca tribunals is reportedly low and many people are reluctant to testify. In fact, some of this fear is well founded as there have been several high profile killings of witnesses. Some claim that the Rwandan government has done a poor job in explaining the objectives and workings of the gacaca to the population—and this may account in part for its unsuccessful implementation. However, many Rwandans assert that the gacaca trials are often unfair and corrupt.

Instead of promoting national reconciliation, experts now fear that gacaca may have the opposite effect, increasing fear, suspicion and distrust within communities and exacerbating the divide between Tutsis and Hutus.

The Rwandan government has dismissed these concerns, saying that unsubstantiated rumors and the desire to evade justice are the root causes of the flight of Rwandan Hutus. If those who had fled Rwanda are, in fact, merely trying to avoid legitimate prosecutions for their actions, they would not be eligible for refugee status. Moreover, international law specifically prohibits the grant of refugee status where there are “serious reasons to consider” that the individual may have been involved in serious international crimes.

In the context of the serious concerns raised about gacaca, as well as documented breaches of human rights, it is probable that at least some of those who fled had experienced genuine threats to their security. Neighboring countries must balance their obligations both to ensure justice for the genocide and to protect the rights of genuine refugees by examining each case individually. The process should be designed to adequately assess whether certain asylum seekers should be excluded for refugee status because there is reason to believe that they participate in carrying out the genocide.

It is unclear whether the agreement between the Rwandan and Burundian governments will mark the beginning of a new refugee policy between the two countries, or if it is simply a reaction to this specific influx. Rwanda hosts 6,623 Burundian refugees. According to the agreement between the two countries, they too have been labeled “illegal immigrants.” In addition, it is unclear what will happen to an estimated 2,000 Rwandans who are reportedly still in Burundi, either having evaded the repatriation or entered the country more recently.

Programmes: Causes of Displacement, Statelessness, Citizenship and Right to a Nationality, Rights in Exile, Mass Atrocity Prevention
Regions: Great Lakes Region, Burundi, Rwanda
Type: Refugee Rights News