(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

Bujumbura hands over 571 Rwandans

Burundian officials have handed over 571 Rwandan nationals whose request for asylum had been rejected by the government of Burundi. The exchange took place on Wednesday, when Rwandan representatives met the group at Kanyuru River, a natural border between the two countries.

The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, provided transport for the returnees. It was the second repatriation of Rwandans from Burundi since 8 May; in all, more than 1,200 have gone home. The repatriations follow the Burundian government's announcement on 10 April that it would expel all Rwandans who failed to meet conditions for acceptance as refugees.

At least 18,000 Rwandans remain in Musasa and Songore camps in Burundi's northern Ngozi Province and in Rwisuri in Kirundo Province, also in the north. Rwandans had started crossing into Burundi's northern provinces in March 2005, having fled the traditional justice system known as "gacaca", which their government had introduced to expedite trials for thousands of people suspected of involvement in the 1994 genocide.

In June 2005, all Rwandans seeking asylum in Burundi were forced by both governments to return home. However, groups of Rwandans managed to cross back into Burundi, until they numbered 19,000 in March.

Burundi's Interior Minister Brig-Gen Evarite Ndayishimiye, who accompanied the Rwandans to the border, said an additional 500 Rwandans had registered for repatriation by Wednesday. He said Rwandan authorities should prepare to welcome at least 2,000 returnees every week over the coming months.

His Rwandan counterpart, Musa Fazari Halerimana, said all of his countrymen who had attempted to seek asylum in Burundi must return home. "Fleeing the country is not a solution," he said. "Instead, denounce criminals so those who committed crimes [can] admit them."

Halerimana said those who fled Rwanda because of food scarcity had ended up facing similar shortages in Burundi's northern province of Ngozi.

Didace Nzikoruriho, who is in charge of refugees for the Burundian interior ministry, said on Wednesday the repatriation of the Rwandans would be completed within three months.

In 2005, a joint commission of officials from the Burundi government and UNHCR began evaluating individual requests by Rwandans to determine whether they qualified for refugee status. Of 1,249 requests, the government granted refugee status to 53 people. They have been moved to the Giharo camp in Burundi's southeastern province of Rutana.

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