15 February 2017

East Africa: Uganda Moves to Expel Burundian Refugees

Photo: Steven Rwembeho/The New Times
Burundian refugees (file photo).

Nyambura — Ugandan will send home at least 46,000 refugees from Burundi following a request from its government. Burundian officials maintain that the country is now safe after months of civil unrest.

Uganda is home to over 45,000 Burundian refugees, many of who live in the Nakivale Camp in the western Ugandan District of Isingiro. Over 200,000 Burundians have fled the country after violence broke out in protest of President Pierre Nkurunziza's re-election in 2015.

The government has recently embarked on a campaign to convince its citizens who took refugee in neighboring countries of Uganda, Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo to return home.

The call for refugees to return home comes on the eve of peace talks which are scheduled to run from February 16 to 18 in Arusha, Tanzania. However, the Burundian government has refused to send representatives to the talks.

Three-month limit

Uganda's Minister for Disaster Preparedness Hillary Onek warned that those who refused to return would be issued documents for a three month extension after which they must leave Uganda.

"You are given a visa to stay here for three months and if your visa is expired, we shall not do it like Trump but we shall advise them quietly to go back," the Minister said. "We shall expect them to go back after the peaceful resolution."

Onek added that Burundi has maintained that it wants its people back home.

"If Burundi is peaceful as we know it and they have finished the agreement in Arusha, then those who want to continue here as refugees shall be turned over to immigration," said Onek.

Conflicting accounts

Minister Onek's deputy Musa Ecweru recently made contradictory comments about the move to force refugees to return home. Ecweru said that no refugees shall be forced to leave against their will as stipulated in international refugee laws.

"The laws that govern refugees stipulate that for a refugee to return to his country, it must be voluntary. No refugee will be compelled to return and should they return, it must be done with dignity," Ecweru said.

Dismas Nkunda, chief executive officer of Atrocities Watch Africa, believes that the contradictory messages from the Ugandan ministers is a sign that they are out of touch with the reality.

"The ministers contradicting themselves shows that no one knows the situation on the ground or has has deeply looked at the policies and implications of sending them back," he said.

Calling them home

Burundi's Minister for Home Affairs Pascal Barandagiye while visiting Uganda said that they will not stop trying to convince their citizens to return home.

"We know even now that there are some people there in the camp who want to come back home," Barandagiye said. "For those who are in Tanzania we are also planning to go there. We will convince them to come back."

There are fears however that the opposition in Burundi will try to sabotage these efforts and ask refugees not to return to Burundi, especially before a peace agreement is reached.

The Burundian crisis began in April 2015 after President Pierre Nkurunziza's decision to seek a controversial third five-year term. The opposition said the move violated the constitution and a peace deal that brought the Burundi's civil war to an end after the loss of 300,000 lives.

Hundreds of people, including high-ranking army officials, have been killed in the resulting unrest.

A "PR" Stunt?

Nkunda dismissed the calls by the Burundi government to have its people return home as a mere public relations stunt.

"They are saying the country is peaceful when its not. We are receiving 400 refugees [in Uganda] from Burundi everyday," Nkunda said.

He said the conditions in Burundi have not changed as cases of harassment and torture are still rampant. Plus most of the refugees are still recovering from the atrocities they left behind. Nkunda said refugees should individually decide if they want to return to Burundi.

"The idea that the Burundi government wants to show the world that it is safe when people are fleeing is disturbing," he added.

Uganda has been praised for its open-door policy towards refugees. There are up to a million refugees in Uganda from Somalia, Rwanda, Burundi, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

This has led Nkunda to question why Uganda would push refugees back to Burundi and not other countries.

"We have almost 1 million refugees from Sudan, Rwanda and DR Congo," he said. "So the 45,000 from Burundi is not a big number."

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