UN agency warns group of Congolese refugees in Burundi against returning home

5 October 2009 – The United Nations refugee agency today warned more than 2,000 Congolese sheltering in Burundi against returning to their homes in conflict-ridden eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

The Congolese refugees from a region of South Kivu province which borders with Burundi have refused to relocate to a newly established camp further east and decided instead to return west to the Uvira region of South Kivu, their homeland.

For months, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and Burundian authorities have led an intensive information campaign to prepare the refugees for voluntary relocation, part of a consolidation exercise involving the closure of the makeshift camp housing this particular group of Congolese until last week.

Since the start of the information campaign, only 264 refugees have agreed to relocate, the rest refusing to move, citing fears for their safety in the new Bwagiriza camp because of its proximity to a rival Congolese community in Tanzania, despite UNHCR assurances that the camp is a safe 60 kilometres away from that border.

Gihinga camp – which has been accommodating the Congolese – officially closed last week, and some 2,300 refugees informed Burundian authorities today of their planned departure to South Kivu.

UNHCR have urged the Congolese to stay in Burundi as the violent armed conflict between Government forces and various rebel militia in eastern DRC means their safety cannot be guaranteed by the agency or Government authorities, and no assistance can be offered.

Moreover, the conditions still prevail which forced the refugees into exile in June 2004, as well as the Gatumba massacre a few months later, when Burundi’s ethnic Hutu rebel Forces Nationales de Liberation (FNL) slaughtered 160 Tutsi Congolese in a camp, said UNHCR.

“UNHCR does not go against refugees’ will to go back to their country and had been helping some of them to return to South Kivu,” said Clementine Nkweta-Salami, UNHCR Representative in Burundi.

“However, we have already been forced to suspend that repatriation operation earlier this year because of the military operations,” said Ms. Nkweta-Salami. “Under these conditions, it would be irresponsible to allow refugees to expose themselves to almost certain risk through the decision to return.”

[original]

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