Burundians fleeing to Rwanda deepen Kigali’s refugee crisis

Tuesday April 28 2015

Burundian refugees arrive in Rwanda's southeastern district of Bugesera on April 3, 2015. AFP PHOTO | STEPHANIE AGLIETTI

The number of Burundian refugees entering Rwanda fearing violence has topped 21,500, just a month to the June 26 presidential election.

This brings the number of refugees in Rwanda from neighbouring countries to almost 100,000, a scenario observers say could create one of the most worrying refugee crisis in the region.

The numbers are expected to soar as tensions and violence grip Burundi following President Pierre Nkurunziza’s party the National Council for the Defence of Democracy Forces for Defence and Democracy (CNDD-FDD) announcement that it would field him in the presidential polls on Saturday.

The decision was met with resistance from thousands of Burundians who took to the streets Sunday to protest Nkurunziza’s decision to run again, prompting security organs to use force to disperse the angry protesters. The skirmishes have resulted into six death so far.

READ: Burundi anti-president protestors clash for third day

But just as run-ins between security forces and protestors continue in Bujumbura and its environs, up north, Rwanda is battling a refugee influx that has been prompted by fears that those who do not support the incumbent will be attacked by the ‘Imbonerakure’ vigilantes loyal to President Nkurunziza.


The fleeing refugees who arrive in the southeastern district of Bugesera say they have been threatened by the ‘Imbonerakure’ who are spreading fear among Burundians.

READ: Crisis looms as Burundians flee to Rwanda

“We do not support his party or his bid to run again,” said Immaculee Nyabyenda, 32, who fled with five children, including a malnourished 9-month-old.

They came from Busoni, Kirundo Province – like many of the refugees. They say the Imbonerakure are armed and ready to harm or at worst kill anyone who doesn’t support CNDD-FDD.

Thousands of the refugees walked for several days before finding a place to sneak through the porous border of the two countries after waking up to leaflets warning citizens to vote Nkurunziza or die.

“We feel safe in Rwanda. We think President [Paul] Kagame will not let us die,” said Solange Mukarugoma, 24, who added that when the announcement was made last Saturday, they woke up to leaflets urging them to vote for the party or risk trouble.

Ms Mukarugoma and others waited patiently for the government of Rwanda and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to relocate them to another camp in Mahama, Kirehe district, farther east of the capital Kigali.

“It is better than remaining in Burundi under the climate of fear, not knowing whether the next day will come,” observed Yozefu Minani, a 50-year-old man, who said that the country was on the verge of going back in days of political violence.

No longer ethnic

Unlike in the past, both Hutu and Tutsi are up in arms against attempts by President Nkurunziza and his party to extend their stay in power. In fact, the fleeing refugees reflect both ethnicities.

“We are all up for one cause, which is democracy. This no longer has nothing to do with ethnic difference,” observes Minani, an ethnic Hutu.

Upon arrival in Rwanda, the Burundian refugees were granted refugee status but according to those arriving, thousands more are being blocked from leaving the country by Imbonerakure and the Burundi police.

Some sections in the Burundian government have accused Rwanda of “throwing the door wide open” for the refugees who they say are running away from no serious threat.

The Burundian presidency spokesperson Willy Nyamitwe said this week that while the country was going through difficult times, the current tensions are not enough for citizens to leave the country in hoards.

President Nkurunziza was previously heard saying that majority of those fleeing were running away from hunger and not insecurity.

The Rwandan Minister of Disaster Management and Refugee Affairs Seraphine Mukantabana told The EastAfrican that the country cannot shut the door on people who come saying that they are running away from a real threat.

“Rwanda is a country that observes international conventions on refugees. What can we do? Send them back?” wonders Minister Mukantabana.

She said that Rwanda was quick to offer the fleeing Burundians refugee status because they were arriving in large numbers and running away from an apparent threat and to this end, this would make easy for not only Rwanda but also the international community to cater for their needs.

On Monday, the United Nations expressed concern over the growing number of refugees, with the humanitarian wing appealing for $11.6 million dollars to plan a response for the growing number of Burundians seeking refuge in neighbouring countries.

The UNHCR Office in Rwanda reported that as of Tuesday 21,408 Burundians had sought refuge in the country over the past two weeks.

UNHCR said that together with the Kigali government, they are working to relocate a total of 16,000 refugees from the two reception centres, Bugesera and Nyanza, to the new Mahama refugee camp by May.

“The number of refugees being relocated on a daily basis to the new camp is increasing due to the sharply rising rate of new arrivals (almost 3,000 individuals arriving daily as of April 25, up from an average of 500 daily arrivals between April 16-21), overwhelming the two reception centres.

“UNHCR, the Government and partners are planning for a continued high rate of influx,” the UN said in a statement. More refugees have arrived in DR Congo, about 4,000 of them while others went to Tanzania in what the UN says could worsen