Burundi, Rwanda violate international refugee obligations, UN says

14 June 2005

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan and the UN refugee agency today charged that the Governments of Burundi and Rwanda violated their obligations under international law when some 5,000 Rwandan asylum-seekers in Burundi were sent back to Rwanda on Sunday and Monday.

"The repatriation of the asylum-seekers follows a decision on 11 June by Burundi and Rwanda to consider Burundian and Rwandan asylum-seekers as 'illegal immigrants,'" Mr. Annan's spokesman told journalists at UN Headquarters in New York.

"The Secretary-General is seriously concerned about this action, which constitutes a violation of international law, particularly the 1951 United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1974 OAU Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa," Fred Eckhard said.

The Organization for African Unity (OAU) was succeeded in May 2001 by the African Union (AU).

Mr. Annan urged Rwanda and Burundi to respect international law by giving due process to the 7,000 Burundian refugees still in Rwanda and 700 Rwandan asylum seekers still in Burundi, the spokesman said.

A UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesman in Geneva said, "UNHCR deeply regrets that despite our repeated appeals for restraint and our commitment to the highest levels of both governments to work with them to find a constructive solution in accordance with international law, the Burundian and Rwandan authorities pressed ahead with the return operation and denied us access."

Without access to the asylum-seekers, the spokesman explained, there was no way of knowing whether their return was truly voluntary. The circumstances of the past week, in fact, led to the conclusion that they had no other option but to return.

"Therefore," he said, "UNHCR cannot consider their return as voluntary and hence it constitutes a violation of the principle of non-refoulement that is enshrined in the 1951 Refugee convention, to which both Burundi and Rwanda are both signatories."

The Rwandan asylum seekers first began arriving in Burundi in March this year, citing fears over the local 'gacaca' tribunals looking into the 1994 genocide in their homeland.

UNHCR was also concerned about the fate of some 7,000 Burundian refugees in Rwanda, the spokesman said, since they too were now considered "illegal immigrants" and the agency feared that they could be returned home against their will.