Congo, Burundi Pursue Ways to Protect Refugees Stranded by South Kivu Fighting
By Howard Lesser
13 October 2009
Democratic Republic of Congo negotiators have wrapped up what are described as a successful opening round of talks in Burundi’s capital, Bujumbura, focusing mainly on the eventual return of some 2,500 displaced South Kivu residents.
The refugees fled to Burundi during Congo’s violence in 2004. Plans to relocate them to eastern Burundi are proceeding cautiously, as many of the displaced exiles tried to forestall a U.N. authorized transfer. Instead, they flocked to an inaccessible D.R.C. border crossing after departing Burundi’s recently closed Gihinga camp, where they had lived for the past five years, to avoid moving further away from their home soil. But their efforts to re-enter Congo stalled at the closed border because authorities on both sides believe the high level of fighting within the eastern D.R.C. has made it impossible to let them back in.
U.N. refugee agency communications officer Fatoumata Lejeune-Kaba says that some refugees remain unaccounted for at the blocked border. But since last week, she says most have agreed reluctantly to sojourn in Burundi until the violence in eastern Congo subsides and it’s once again safe for the U.N. to arrange their return home.
“Following the visit of the D.R.C. government, precisely, the minister of foreign affairs led a delegation to go to Burundi and with the Burundian minister of the interior, they met the refugees and explained to them that it’s not that nobody wants them to go back home. It’s just that at the moment, the conditions are not right, and asked the refugees to please consider moving to the new camp in eastern Burundi, pending some bilateral arrangements to see how eventually they could be helped home,” she said.
As fighting intensified last year in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) chose to close down Burundi’s Gihinga camp to accommodate and assist Congo’s refugee population on a larger scale. Lejeune-Kaba says camp residents were given ample notice of the consolidation plans and an upgrading of camp services. Many of them objected and headed at first toward Bujumbura on their way to the Congo border, but with South Kivu violence on an upswing and further transit impossible, she says many of the refugees agreed to settle in Burundi’s new camp further east.
“With the negotiations that have been going on between the government of Burundi, the government of D.R.C., and the refugees themselves, the majority of them have now accepted to relocate to the Bwagiriza camp in eastern Burundi, where they initially said they did not want to go,” she explained.
The UNHCR says that as many as 800 Congolese refugees who were blocked at the border are still unaccounted for. Lejeune-Kaba says the refugees received ample notice about plans for their temporary relocation and can rest assured that they will be welcome to stay in Burundi as long as they need to, without fear for their security.
“We started out a campaign explaining for months to the refugees what would happen. One thing I want to say is that they are welcome in Burundi. And we have assured them that does not put them in any danger despite the fear they expressed about being too close to the Tanzanian border. As far as we know, they have no security problems,” she pledged.
Lejeune-Kaba says that South Kivu is not a safe place to go at this time, with military operations making it unfeasible to move more than 2,000 civilians back home safely. The UNHCR and Burundi government have assured the refugees they will resume repatriation efforts to South Kivu as soon as the ongoing military activity subsides. Negotiators plan to continue talks later this week in Bujumbura in an effort to refine plans to help the Congolese refugees to be repatriated when war conditions abate.
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