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KIGALI, Rwanda – Rwanda is to relocate refugees from Burundi to other countries, the government said Friday, February 12 amid accusations Kigali is meddling in the affairs of its troubled neighbor.
“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,” read a government statement that took the UN refugee agency by surprise.
The UNHCR said it was “concerned” over the announcement, saying it “seems to undermine the precedent of refugee protection Rwanda has set over decades.”
Last week, UN experts told the Security Council that Rwanda has recruited and trained refugees from Burundi, among them children, who wanted to remove Burundi’s President Pierre Nkurunziza from power.
Burundi has repeatedly accused Rwanda of backing rebels intent on overthrowing the government in Bujumbura. Kigali has fiercely denied the accusations.
“Rwanda readily shoulders its obligations to protect and care for refugees,” the government statement said.
“However, experience in the Great Lakes is that the long-term presence of refugees so close to their country of origin carries considerable risks for all involved.”
Burundi has been in turmoil since Nkurunziza announced plans in April to run for a third term, which he went on to win. Hundreds of people have been killed and at least 230,000 have fled the country.
‘Risks to national security’
Some 75,000 Burundian refugees are in Rwanda, according to the UNHCR.
The agency said it had met with Rwandan officials who insisted Kigali “would continue to respect its international obligations to protect refugees, would not close its borders, and would not forcibly expel Burundian refugees.”
The UNHCR, in a statement, “urged the government to make such clarifications publicly as soon as possible to prevent panic on the part of refugees in Rwanda.”
Violence continues in Burundi. On Thursday, February 11, a grenade blast wounded 26 people in the capital Bujumbura, 9 of them seriously, the latest in a string of attacks.
“The callous indifference to the well-known root causes of instability in Burundi, and the refugee exodus, is troubling,” Rwandan Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo said.
“It also exposes refugees to increased threats from forces at home and compromises lasting political solutions. For Rwanda, the growing risks to our national security from the Burundian impasse and misunderstandings in our foreign relations are unacceptable.”
The European Union, dissatisfied with the progress in Burundi, is expected on Monday, February 15 to announce the suspension of direct aid to the government, a diplomatic source in Brussels told Agence France-Presse.
Foreign ministers of the 28 EU member states, meeting in Brussels Monday, will approve a text outlining the stalemate in talks with Burundi on human rights and announce the upcoming adoption of “appropriate measures” including a suspension of direct aid, the diplomat said Friday.
The EU is the biggest donor to Burundi with a program worth some 430 million euros ($468 million) from 2014 to 2020.
The measures should be in place before the end of the month, the diplomat added, while stressing that humanitarian aid channelled directly to the Burundi people would be maintained.
‘Destabilizing activities’ by Rwanda
On Wednesday, February 10 the United States accused Rwanda of involvement in “destabilizing activities” in Burundi.
The US concerns were raised in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee by two top diplomats, who cited reports from colleagues in the field that point to Rwandan involvement in the Burundi crisis.
“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,” said Thomas Perriello, US envoy for the Great Lakes region of Africa.
Neighboring nations already host thousands of Burundian refugees in overstretched camps, with Tanzania hosting some 130,000 and Democratic Republic of Congo over 18,000. Uganda, which borders Rwanda to the north, has 21,000.
It was not clear where Rwanda plans to send refugees.
“In recent months, Rwanda has made requests to international partners and organizations to host Burundians living in camps and in towns in Rwanda,” Kigali’s statement added.
“No party has come forward yet, even as the political situation in the refugees’ country of origin shows no improvement.” – Stephanie Aglietti, AFP/Rappler.com