- Many of the thousands of Rwandans currently seeking asylum in Burundi are believed to be trying to escape justice from Rwanda's local people's courts, which are now trying cases related to the 1994 genocide. Their forced expulsion from Burundi however risks sending back many innocent persons.
Almost all Rwandan asylum seekers that recently arrived Burundi are Hutu, as were the assailants who slaughtered about three-quarters of the Tutsi living in Rwanda in 1994. But about half the Rwandans who fled to Burundi are children - too young to have participated in the 1994 killings.
Rwandan asylum seekers in Burundi, who began fleeing Rwanda in late March, numbered some 7,000 by early May. The UN's refugee agency (UNHCR) moved about 2,000 of them to two official sites to afford them better security and access to assistance.
But in late April, Burundian authorities halted the transfer of the asylum seekers. Together with Rwandan officials, the Burundian authorities tried to persuade asylum seekers to return home. When persuasion failed, Burundian authorities closed four of the seven sites where asylum seekers had gathered.
Since that, there have been reports of use of force against the refugees unwilling to return. Burundian soldiers and police are said to have coerced and threatened asylum seekers, insisting they must return to Rwanda. In some cases, they beat the Rwandans, overturned their cooking pots, and tore down their shelters. There are also reports of rape.
According to the New York-based group Human Rights Watch, Burundian authorities are not complying with international law when not allowing the Rwandan refugees to have their asylum applications individually treated. "International law requires that all asylum seekers must have a fair hearing of their reasons for seeking protection abroad," commented Alison Des Forges of the human rights group.
Mr Forges however acknowledged that there were exceptions. "Rwandans implicated in the genocide must be brought before a fair trial. But the mere act of fleeing from Rwanda is not an admission of guilt," he said, adding that those responsible for acts of genocide or certain other grave international crimes may be excluded from refugee status.
Under coercion, most Rwandans had left the sites in Burundi during the second week in May, but asylum seekers have now gathered again at the sites. Some returned to the sites after hiding for several days in the vicinity; some went back to Rwanda and then returned to Burundi, claiming to have met new threats at home. Other asylum seekers have just arrived from Rwanda for the first time.
The Hutu asylum seekers claim they fear unfair treatment in Rwanda by local people's courts, called gacaca. Just three months ago, these courts began to try persons accused of participating in the 1994 genocide. Some of the asylum seekers say they also fear violence from Rwandan government officials or from genocide survivors who had threatened them.
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