The more than 72,000 Burundian refugees in Rwanda have been given freeway to start going back home beginning August 27.
The Rwanda government says it is ready to facilitate any refugees who wish to voluntarily repatriate in the wake of reports that Burundian refugees currently living in the country have requested for talks between governments of both countries to help them return home.
The government position came following a letter signed by about 311 refugees addressed to the President of Burundi, requesting his government to engage with the government of Rwanda and relevant organisations to facilitate them to return home.
“Rwanda reaffirms the principle of voluntary repatriation as a durable solution for refugees, in accordance with international and Rwandan law,” the Rwanda Ministry in charge of Emergency Management said in a statement recently.
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) confirmed it received information on the petition, with the United Nation’s body charged with refugees reiterating that it will facilitate those who wish to voluntarily return.
A tripartite videoconference meeting held on Thursday August 20, 2020 involving Rwandan, Burundi and UN refugees agency officials agreed to begin preparations for the refugees to go home.
The deal comes following days of a fierce propaganda war between Kigali and Bujumbura over the refugees. It all began after the letter written to Burundi’s new leader President Evariste Ndayishimiye asking he facilitates them to repatriate.
The president followed up the said letter with what he said was a written response, telling them Burundi was open. However, in a speech, President Ndayishimiye called Rwanda a “hypocritical country”, accusing Kigali of holding the refugees hostage.
There has been no let-up in the information warfare between the two countries going back the past five years. Following the said letter, government media in Rwanda reported that it was fabricated from Bujumbura, and that some of the refugees on the list had said they didn’t know of such actions.
Later, Rwanda took its campaign a step further. Foreign Affairs Minister Dr Vincent Biruta said Burundi has been doing everything possible to discourage the refugees from going home.
He said if indeed Rwanda had blocked the refugees, how come those in Tanzania and DR Congo had not gone back.
However, not all the Burundian refugees in Rwanda have expressed willingness to return, with one section saying that the conditions are not yet convincing, despite the country’s new declaring, upon taking office in June, that doors were open for refugees to freely return.
In their letter, the refugees said that there is hope for security under President Ndayishimiye’s rule, following his promise that there will not be any revenge exerted upon political opponents, though some who are opposed to the return say that the conditions didn’t change much despite the new government.
The refugees began pouring into Rwanda, and other regional neighbors in the lead up to a controversial election in 2014. Situation got worse after a failed coup against former leader Pierre Nkurunziza in May 2015. It is estimated that by 2017 atleast 500,000 Burundians had fled the country.
In Rwanda, the refugees live in the Mahama camp, which is more of a permanent settlement in eastern Rwanda, near Tanzania border. Thousands others have integrated into Rwandan communities all across Rwanda. Many are employed here, others have successful businesses – with the bar industry for example dominated by them before the COVID-19 pandemic struck.
It remains to be seen how the new agreement is going to be implemented. According to the tripartite deal, UNHCR will provide stations in the Mahama camp for registration to those who want to leave. They will also be facilitated after they make the decision to return home. The count is now on for the August 27 date when the first batch is expected to cross the border.
Tanzania for its part has repeatedly issued ultimatums to the nearly 250,000 on its territory to leave, or be forced out. Hundreds have in the past months been boarding UNHCR trucks to go home.
Tens of thousands of Burundian refugees face mounting pressure to involuntarily leave Tanzania amid efforts by authorities there to reduce the number of Burundians in the country. Tanzanian authorities have expressed frustration over what they say is the U.N.’s slow pace in repatriating refugees back to Burundi. More than 70,000 refugees have returned to Burundi since December 2017, and rights groups say it is hard to tell how many of those returned voluntarily.
Tanzania is hosting by far the most Burundian refugees at 242,340, followed by Rwanda with 85,741, Democratic Republic of Congo with 40,015, Uganda with 36,278, Kenya with 6,582 and Southern African countries are hosting 7,124 people.
Burundians that have previously returned as refugees claim beatings, arrests, disappearances and killings that are meted on anyone suspected of being in political opposition by youths affiliated with the ruling party, CNDD/FDD.
These same allegations were raised by Burundian refugees in Tanzania who were considering an appeal to the United Nations following a repatriation deal between the two countries.
Burundi has been in turmoil since June 2015, when President Nkurunziza was re-elected for a controversial third term. Hundreds of people were killed in the unrest and violence that followed, and hundreds of thousands have fled the country for safety. Nkurunziza died after election of President Ndayishimiye.
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