Rwanda wants to kick out all its Burundi refugees

Residents of Bujumbura, capital of Burundi, cycle as they participate in a demonstration against the Rwandan government, February 13, 2016.
Jean Pierre Aime Harerimana

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Refugees from Burundi who fled unrest to neighboring Rwanda are fearful their days in that country are numbered.

The Rwandan government has announced it will relocate an estimated 70,000 Burundian refugees to unspecified third countries. This follows accusations from the United States and United Nations that Rwanda has been secretly recruiting, training and arming refugees to overthrow Burundi's government.

Kigali has denied these charges. Louise Mushikiwabo, Rwanda's foreign minister, said her government would immediately begin working to plan for the relocation of the refugees, explaining in a statement: "The growing risks to our national security from the Burundian impasse and misunderstandings in our foreign relations are unacceptable."

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Burundi has been in turmoil since President Pierre Nkurunziza decided to stand for a third term last April, leading to months of street protests and an attempted coup. He went on to win elections in July. 

Over the past few months the situation in Bujumbura, the capital, has deteriorated into almost nightly attacks, with bodies appearing on the streets nearly every morning. 

More than 440 people have died and at least 240,000 have fled Burundi for neighboring countries, the majority of them to Tanzania, while 75,000 have sought refuge in Rwanda. 

Thomas Perriello, US envoy for the Great Lakes region of Africa, said that reports from senior diplomats in the field suggested that refugees — including children — were being recruited from Rwanda to fight against Burundi's government.

"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," he told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week.

Accusations that Rwanda is covertly backing rebels in Burundi were also contained in a confidential UN report made public earlier this month.

Burundi has a similar ethnic mix to Rwanda, where 800,000 people — Tutsis and moderate Hutus — were killed in a genocide in 1994. 

The Rwandan government has in recent years also been accused of supporting rebel groups in Democratic Republic of Congo in support of ethnic Tutsis. 

UNHCR, the UN's refugee agency, said it was "concerned" by Rwanda's announcement that it would relocate refugees, adding that it "seems to undermine the precedent of refugee protection Rwanda has set over decades."

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