More than 1600 Burundians who crossed into Rwanda last month from the Democratic Republic of Congo were repatriated to their country on Sunday, after they refused biometric registration and child vaccination due to what they say is their religious belief.
By 9:30 am, 1600 of them who were camped at Gashora Transit Centre in Bugesera District had crossed to the Burundian side and were already undergoing head-count by Burundian officials.
They arrived at Nemba One-Stop Border Post aboard 21 public buses from Kigali Bus Services (KBS), a local company.
One official from Burundi, whose name we could not identify was heard saying that each individual would be transported back to their respective home areas.
Before crossing to Rwanda, these refugees were camped in a place called Kamanyola in DR Congo and crossed into Rwanda through Rusizi District. They were sent to three different temporary sites for registration and emergency services before being resettled in refugee camps.
By press time, another similar exercise was happening in Nyanza and Nyarushishi Transit centres where the rest of these 2500 Burundian asylum seekers had been taken.
These apparently declined any attempts by World Health Organisation (WHO), Ministry of Health and the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, to feed them after they refused any industrial processed food stuff including biscuits distributed across camps as well as boycotting vaccination against measles, polio, pertussis (whooping cough), diphtheria, tetanus and tuberculosis according to officials from Ministry of Disaster Management and Refugee Affairs.
They are members of a cult that follows a female Charismatic Catholic Prophet identified as Euzebie Ngendakumana, commonly known as Zebiya, who is said to be in her early 40s—who claims to see visions of the Virgin Mary.
These refugees, who claim to be Catholic and "followers of God", told The New Times that their prophet warned them against UN data and eating foods made out of East Africa "because they are not sanctified by 'God'."
"We would rather go back home, surrender ourselves to persecution than do things our Lord doesn't consider Holy," one aging asylum seeker, Marie-Laure Sinankwa said in an interview.
According to Sinankwa, all these refugees unanimously signed papers of voluntary repatriation back to Burundi instead of accepting biometric registration that also involves taking one's fingerprint which they claim contradicts with their belief.
Asked if she knew Zebiya personally or where she is located, Sinankwa could only affirm to know her as "just God's messenger to us".
Olivier Rugina Kayumba, the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Disaster Management and Refugee Affairs (MIDIMAR) says that declining these services including immunisation was not an option for the asylum seekers, "especially for these who come into the country from some places were such diseases were rampant.
"For the last couple of weeks, we tried—together with UN agencies—to convince them to take biometric registration and bring their children for vaccination but they refused. We find this risky not only to them but to the hosting communities," Kayumba said.
On the last attempt, two days ago, MIDIMAR and UNHCR asked for whoever was willing to comply with the rules or sign the repatriation letter. Almost all the asylum seeks signed for voluntary repatriation back to Burundi.
Some of their leaders who didn't want to return home and also tried to lead the group into violent demonstrations but these were temporarily retained and have since signed up for voluntary repatriation.