Burundi refugees fearful after Rwanda expulsion threat

Kigali (AFP) –


"In Rwanda we're safe. I don't see anywhere else to go," says Audrey, one of thousands of Burundian refugees now living in Rwanda -- but fearful after Kigali unexpectedly announced plans to relocate them to other countries.

The 27-year-old, who was personally threatened for taking part in demonstrations against President Pierre Nkurunziza at home, says she cannot return to Burundi.

And she is equally unsure of her safety in other countries in the region.

"When we heard the news, we were amazed," she said. "We did not expect it."

Burundi has been in turmoil since Nkurunziza announced plans in April 2015 to run for a third term, which he went on to win.

In less than a year, hundreds of people have been killed and around 230,000 Burundians have fled the country. According to the UNHCR, some 75,000 of those have taken refuge in Rwanda.

Like many of her compatriots, Audrey has been put up by a Rwandan family since fleeing three months ago and she remains too frightened to be photographed or clearly identified.

"We talk about it a lot amongst ourselves, especially on social media, we wonder where we are going to be able to go," she said.

Rwanda's plan to relocate the refugees comes amid accusations that Kigali is meddling in the affairs of its troubled neighbour.

Burundi has repeatedly accused Rwanda of backing rebels intent on overthrowing the government in Bujumbura. Kigali has fiercely denied the accusations.

- Victims for second time -

The United States has also accused Rwanda of involvement in "destabilising activities" in Burundi.

"There are credible reports of recruitment of Burundian refugees out of camps in Rwanda to participate in armed attacks by Burundian armed opposition against the Burundian government," Thomas Perriello, US envoy for the Great Lakes region of Africa, said Wednesday.

UN experts also told the Security Council last week that Rwanda had recruited and trained refugees from Burundi, among them children, who wanted to remove Burundi's Nkurunziza from power.

Rwanda's relocation announcement came out of the blue on Friday, even taking the UN refugee agency by surprise.

"The government of Rwanda... will immediately begin working with partners in the international community to plan the orderly and safe relocation of Burundian refugees to third countries," the government said in a statement.

Reacting to the plan UNHCR said it was "concerned", saying it "seems to undermine the precedent of refugee protection Rwanda has set over decades."

"A third country? What does that mean?" said Amandine, a mother of two children, one of whom has just started at a primary school in the Rwandan capital.

Neighbouring nations already host thousands of Burundian refugees in overstretched camps, with Tanzania hosting some 130,000 and the Democratic Republic of Congo over 18,000. Uganda, which borders Rwanda to the north, has 21,000.

"Many refugees have started a new life in Kigali," said Sandrine, 26. "Some started their own business. Students who had had to interrupt their studies when they fled Burundi have resumed their education here," she said.

"We will be victims for a second time," she said.

- Goodwill of Rwandans -

Kigali has assured the UNHCR that it "would continue to respect its international obligations to protect refugees, would not close its borders, and would not forcibly expel Burundian refugees".

The agency, however, urged "the government to make such clarifications publicly as soon as possible to prevent panic on the part of refugees in Rwanda".

"We would like to have more information. We are in the dark on this," said Audrey, who is only half reassured by the UNHCR statements.

Exiled Burundian journalist Reverien Bazikanwe said he too was concerned.

But he said he understood Rwanda's decision.

Kigali, he said, was reacting to unfounded accusations which he accused the Burundi government of using to "drown out the major issue" of the crisis in Burundi.

"It's in the interests of Bujumbura to cloud the real issue," he said.

UNHCR spokeswoman in Rwanda, Martina Pomeroy, said she feared possible tensions between the Rwandan population and the refugees.

Most of the refugees are "living in families or the community where they have been dependent on the generosity and goodwill of Rwandans hosting them", she said.

"So what can happen if the population thinks that refugees have become undesirable for the government?" she added.