The government has granted the now over 11,000 Burundians who have crossed into the country in recent days prima facie refugee status.
The Minister for Disaster Management and Refugee Affairs, Seraphine Mukantabana, announced this, yesterday, at a media conference in Kigali.
Mukantabana said the decision was taken considering the overwhelming number of Burundians who continue to trek into the country seeking refuge, with a daily average now at 800 refugees.
“The decision to grant prima facie refugee status to the Burundians is in accordance with Article 13 of the Rwandan law relating to refugees in the country and the 1951 convention relating to refugees whereby a population fleeing in a mass influx is unconditionally granted refugee status,” Mukantabana said.
“As of Thursday, the number of Burundian refugees received in the country had reached 11,915, which complicates the procedure of determining their status on an individual basis,” she added.
According to the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, during mass movements of refugees (usually as a result of conflicts or generalised violence as opposed to individual persecution), there is no capacity to conduct individual asylum interviews for everyone who has crossed the border.
The UN agency says doing so is not entirely necessary either, since in such circumstances it is generally evident why they have fled and, as a result, such groups are often declared “prima facie” refugees.
Prima facie refugees are different from an asylum seeker – someone who says they are refugees – but whose claim has not yet been definitively evaluated.
Article 13 of the Rwandan law on refugees partly stipulates that the granting of prima facie refugee status shall not prevent the Refugee Status Determination Committee from analysing individual applications where necessary.
Article 14, among others, stipulates that no person shall be eligible for refugee status if there is strong evidence indicating that: he or she committed a crime against peace, war crime, crime of genocide and other crimes against humanity as defined by international conventions ratified by Rwanda.
By Thursday evening, 7,962 refugees were in the transit camp in Bugesera, while the most congested one in Nyanza, now being decongested by relocating hundreds to Kirehe District, had 2,222 refugees, way above its 210 capacity.
Nyagatare refugee transit camp, in Rusizi District, had 108 refugees by Thursday.
On Wednesday, government and partners, including the UNHCR started relocating those in Nyanza to Mahama camp, located about 160 kilometers away from the Burundi border, in Kirehe District.
The plan is to relocate at least 600 refugees every day.
Tomorrow, those in Bugesera could also start moving to Mahama camp, located on a 50 hectare patch that government had earlier set aside for agricultural activities.
With concerted government effort, and cooperation from partners, especially the UNHCR, Mukantabana said all basic requirements were in place for the refugees.
“All the possible basics for refugees are in place at Mahama. Refugees can’t have everything but we have considered the basics to guarantee their human rights. Clean water, latrines and other such necessities are in place,” the minister said.
The minister noted that given the continuing influx of Burundians, government has thought about a contingency plan for any eventuality if the refugees threaten to reach 50,000, a number she admitted would be way beyond Rwanda’s holding capacity.
“The government has asked partners such as UNHCR to be ready should the numbers near 50,000 which would really be beyond our [Rwanda] capacity.”
Mukantabana could not readily put into figures how much has been spent on the refugees since they started trekking into the country, but emphasised that “a lot has been spent to accommodate them.”
By Tuesday, 9,572 refugees, including 5,654 children and 2,371 women, had crossed into the country.
Martina Pomeroy, UNHCR-Rwanda external relations officer, told Saturday Times that whatever planning they do, they do it with the government, and that currently, their working plan is for 30,000 people.
Pomeroy said: “We are monitoring every day. In the coming days, we’ll revise our contingency plan and possibly mobilise further resources. There has been a kind of emergency situation lately.”
Earlier in the week, she said, at least 2,000 Burundians had fled to the DR Congo but noted that “the number might have gone up now.”
The Burundians say they are escaping from political instability back home. The mass departure stems from insecurity caused by a simmering election fever ahead of forthcoming parliamentary and presidential elections.
The refugees particularly claim to be fleeing from ‘ruthless’ Imbonerakure (Kirundi word literally meaning “those that see far”), a youth wing of Burundi’s ruling party, the National Council for the Defence of Democracy-Forces for Defence and Democracy (CNDD-FDD), allegedly harassing and attacking members of opposition political parties.
Apart from the Burundians, the country is already home to more than 73, 000 Congolese refugees settled in five camps in various parts of the country.