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Burundi, Rwanda Row Escalates Over Refugees

Gitega has continued to pile pressure on Kigali to free Burundian refugees who have asked to leave Rwanda and return to their homeland, Chimp Corps report.

“The government of Burundi calls on United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNCHR) and the host government (Rwanda) to ensure that the Burundian refugees in Rwanda who have expressed their desire to return to their country are protected as well as their families, in accordance with the spirit and the letter of the said convention,” said Burundi presidency Secretary General Prosper Ntahorwamiye.

The development comes days after Burundian President Evariste Ndayishimiye said Gitega would not have relations with a “hypocritical” state which was keeping Burundian refugees “hostage.”

The newly-elected President, who succeeded Pierre Nkurunziza, didn’t mention the country.

He, however, made the eyebrow-raising remarks near the border with Rwanda which Burundi blames for orchestrating a failed coup in Bujumbura in 2015.

Ntahorwamiye said it all started on July 26, 2020, with 331 Burundian refugees in the Mahama Camp in Rwanda sending a letter to President Ndayishimiye to “request his involvement in their repatriation into their country of origin in dignity and lawfully within the framework of voluntary repatriation, given that the cause of their exile no longer exists.”

On August 5, according to Ntahorwamiye, five Burundian refugees who were signatories on the letter to Ndayishimiye “seized the diplomatic mission of Burundi in Kigali, also by letter, by which they denounced the threats by Madame Marguerite Barankitse, founder of the NGO Maison Shalom, a refugee herself in Rwanda, and request their physical protection.”

Ntahorwamiye said the refugees are recognized and assisted within the framework of the 1951 convention relating to the status of refugees.

“They are therefore in the hands of the host country and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees who have the obligation to remove any artificial obstacle aimed at keeping refugees in the refugee camps against their will,” he said.

The row over refugees is likely to stoke tensions between the two countries.

Returning refugees living in neighboring countries was one of Ndayishimiye’s campaign promises.

More than 70,000 Burundian who fled the country during the 2015 political crisis ended up in Rwanda.

Kigali says the refugees don’t want to return home.

In Kigali, some refugees quoted in pro-government news outlets, said they were not willing to return home, citing security concerns. 

However, thousands of Burundian refugees have in recent years returned from neighbouring countries including Tanzania.

The UNHCR last year said it facilitated the voluntary return of almost 75,000 refugees since September 2017, under a deal with Burundi and Tanzania.

Burundi has previously accused Rwanda of providing military training to refugees to destabilize Burundi.

On its part, Kigali blames Burundi for arming and facilitating Rwandan rebels in DRC to attack Rwanda.

Both countries deny the counter accusations.

Rwandan President Paul Kagame recently expressed willingness to revive ties with Burundi.

Hopes that Ndayishimiye would quickly restore Burundi’s relations with Rwanda have since faded.

“We do not want to have such relations with a country that uses malice, a hypocritical country, which claims to want to restore good relations with Burundi, while placing a thorn under our feet,” said Ndayishimiye.

“If they really want to revive relations with Burundi, let them hand these criminals over to us, so that we can prosecute them. Burundians will never be satisfied until those responsible for the 2015 crisis are punished,” he added.

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