- More than 800 Burundians have arrived in neighbouring Rwanda in the last two weeks, citing threats and fears of violence surrounding the recent constitutional referendum. The new arrivals are mostly Tutsis, but also include a large group of Batwa "pygmies". They mostly come from the hunger-struck north.
According to information released today by the UN's refugee agency, UNHCR, a group of about 600 Tutsis and 200 Batwas have fled northern Burundi for neighbouring Rwanda. The Burundian refugees come from the Ngozi, Kirundo and Muyinga provinces at the Rwandan border, a region suffering from acute and severe food shortage due to a lack of rain and a poor harvest.
- A number of them were in very poor health and severely malnourished, the UN agency informed. The refugees had however said they did not flee out of hunger but out of fear after hearing rumours of violence surrounding a referendum last month. "Some reported coming under threat from neighbours," UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond said at a press briefing in Geneva today.
One refugee, aged 15, had told UNHCR staff in Rwanda that a neighbour's child had mentioned that anyone who did not flee would be killed, Mr Redmond informed. Another refugee explained why she sent her children into exile: "Better they die from hunger in an unknown country than die under machetes."
The UN agency was somewhat taken by surprise by the arrival of the 800 Burundians. Most reports from the referendum over a new constitution - which will provide Burundi's Hutu and Tutsi groups with a new power-sharing model - had indicated that the polling went ahead peacefully and without major incidents.
The reports from the refugees thus may indicate that there had been substantial pressure on Burundi's two minority groups - the Tutsis and the Batwas - to vote "yes" at the referendum. Official results from the election commission showed that more than 90 percent had voted and of the votes cast, more than 90 percent had approved of the constitution. This would have meant a majority approval by both the Hutu and Tutsi population groups.
The Burundian refugees reaching Rwanda however hold that they had been intimidated during the poll exercise. They thus fled to Rwanda, being the closest neighbour and country where the Tutsi group has a strong position in politics following the 1994 genocide.
According to Mr Redmond, the group of Burundian refugees is currently hosted in a settlement near Gikonko in Butare province, southern Rwanda. For better protection and assistance, UNHCR is planning to move them soon to a camp at Nyamure, home to 3,000 Burundian refugees who arrived last year.
Another 1,000 who fled Burundi for Rwanda last year have since returned home. Despite an end to most of fighting in Burundi, returns to the northern provinces of Burundi have slowed down in the past few months. Local UNCHR staff mostly have attributed this to the current famine in that area.
- UNHCR is concerned that the worsening food shortage and reported rise in tensions in northern Burundi may negatively affect the return home of many Burundians, said Mr Redmond. He noted that the refugee agency repatriated more than 90,000 Burundians last year.
The UN agency further expected to help another 150,000 return home from Tanzania this year. There are at least 400,000 Burundian refugees in Tanzania, 250,000 of whom are in camps.
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