KIRUNDO -- Officials from Rwanda and Burundi have reaffirmed their commitment to maintain cordial and amiable relations between both countries.
This comes after over 140 Rwandans who were allegedly living in Burundi illegally crossed the border back to Rwanda in a space of a week.
Almost all had been living in Ntega and Bugabira communes of Kirundo Province, according to testimonies. Some of them had earlier told The New Times they had been married to Burundians and said they left behind their families.
Following the development, a high level meeting was held on Friday between Southern Province leaders and their counterparts from Burundi’s Kirundo province. The closed-door meeting, held in Kirundo and which lasted over two and half hours, was co-chaired by Governor Alphonse Munyantwali and Kirundo’s Reverien Nzigamasabo.
Speaking shortly after the meeting, Nzigamasabo said the Burundian government had never issued a directive to evict Rwandans living there. But rather, he said, his government has asked all foreigners living in Burundi illegally to legalise their status.
“Possibly, there might be a mistake in how this message was transmitted and interpreted by local leaders,” Nzigamasabo said.
“Some grassroots leaders might have misinterpreted the ongoing exercise.The exercise is not intended for Rwandans exclusively but rather all foreigners living in Burundi illegally”.
“It is just a routine exercise to make sure that everyone abides by the law,” he said.
The Kirundo governor described Rwandans as “relatives and friends” and said Rwanda and Burundi were “like fraternal twins.”
“We share a lot of things including the culture and the language,” Nzigamasabo said.
“No forced evictions”
Nzigamasabo said Rwandans-and other people from across the world- are free to live in Burundi as long as they abide by the country’s laws. He refuted earlier reports that Rwandans were being forced out of their property and separated from their families.
He noted that those who left did so willingly and insisted that no security officers or any leader was instructed to force anyone out. He said anyone who might have been separated with their families should return to join them without any fear.
Those whose union were not recognised by the law will be encouraged to formalise their marriages, Governor Nzigamasabo said, noting that Burundi’s constitution stipulates that anyone who gets married to a Burundian citizen gains de facto citizenship.
Other “illegal migrants” will continue to be encouraged to legalise their status to continue living there, according to the official.
“It doesn’t matter how long you have been living in the country if you do not have proper documents,” He noted. “
It remains unclear how many Rwandans live in Burundi illegally but officials said an exercise to identify all individuals, including Rwandans, without proper documents is ongoing.
According to Nzigamasabo, there is no deadline for anyone to have formalised their situation. Earlier reports had suggested that Rwandans had been given ultimatum to vacate.
Officials also said properties of those who have so far crossed the border are well safeguarded.
Scores of Burundians and Rwandans have been crossing borders mainly in search of jobs outside their home country. A number of them remain without proper identification and both countries have been carrying out campaigns to have them legalise their situations.
Friday’s meeting ended with a seven-resolution document, stating that those who had recently “crossed” the border to return to Rwanda were free to return after formalising their situation.
Reuniting separated families and helping cohabiting couples to formalise their marriages and continued sharing of information between both countries on issues affecting their citizens were also among other adopted resolutions.
Southern province Governor Alphonse Munyantwari hailed the meeting and said he was “happy” with its resolutions. He said the “meeting has been highly productive.”
Munyantwari reassured citizens that existing relations between Rwanda and Burundi remain strong and told those wishing to live or work in either country that doors remain open for them.
“There is no reason to worry,” Munyantwari said.
“We should continue visiting each other and travelling to either country, but always endeavour to respect laws and regulations in place.”