BUJUMBURA, 10 September 2009 (IRIN) – More than 2,000 refugees in Burundi have rejected UN appeals to move to a new camp for fear they could be exposed to attack. The refugees, from eastern Democratic Republic of Congo’s Banyamulenge community, are housed in a camp in Gihinga, in Burundi’s central Mwaro province. The UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, and the Burundian government have announced that Gihinga camp will close at the end of September and have called on all those living there to agree to be moved to Bwagiriza, in the northeastern Ruyigi province. Once Gihinga closes, the refugees will only be able receive assistance in Bwagiriza. About 140 have already made the move, but some 2,300 have refused to do so. The refugees say Bwagiriza is too close to a part of Tanzania that is home to members of the Bembe ethnic group, long-time foes of the Banyamulenge. “We hear rumours about residents in Ruyigi who want to attack us when we get there, for reasons we do not know. So, the Ruyigi province is not safe for us. We hear all the time cases of killings there – albinos, residents, even policemen. We fear the same can happen to us,” Freddy Gakunzi, representative of the Congolese Banyamulenge refugees, told IRIN. Although the Bwagiriza camp is quite a distance from the Tanzanian border, the sense of threat was real, said Gakunzi. “People coming to sensitize us [about the proposed relocation] tell us 80km is far from the border, but we consider this distance is short enough for the Bembe to easily come to attack us.” He said there was also concern that, should they move, the refugees might get caught up in any violence resulting from elections scheduled for 2010. “Here at Gihinga, we know the local residents very well, so they cannot do any harm to us. They often bring us food to us. “If they [UNHCR and Burundian officials] do not allow us to stay here or assist us in returning to our country, we are ready to walk for months to reach Congo. We will take the risk of walking the long way to the border,” Gakunzi said, pointing out that many of the refugees were too sick to walk more than a few kilometres per day. Repatriation talks A UNHCR spokesman, Bernard Ntwari, said: “We cannot move them by force; refusing to go is their right. If they do not go, it means they have another alternative.” He added that UNHCR would not be a position to help the refugees move back to their home country until talks with the governments of Burundi and DRC delivered a formal tripartite agreement. In any event, said Ntwari, “an evaluation should be made to find out if the conditions are conducive for their [voluntary] return” to DRC. He added that this did not preclude “spontaneous repatriation… which means refugees are generally free to voluntarily and spontaneously repatriate to their countries of origin if they do not need assistance to do so and if they assume there is no more threat in their home countries”. The latest report by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs on South Kivu paints a grim picture of the eastern DRC province, where the Banyamulenge originate, and which is the theatre of a joint operation by government and UN forces against Rwandan rebels. Attacks against civilians in the province include “rape, looting, arson, hostage-taking, illegal roadblocks and forced portering of military equipment”, said OCHA’s weekly update (available in French only).
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