Rwanda’s Way of Solving Its Refugee Problem? Kick Its Refugees Out.
For months Burundi has accused Rwanda of arming Burundian refugees. Now Rwanda is kicking the refugees out.
For months, the Burundian government has accused neighboring Rwanda of arming and training Burundian refugees to topple President Pierre Nkurunziza’s administration — charges Kigali flatly denies.
Now, Kigali has a new plan to deflect those claims: Force the more than 70,000 Burundian refugees living in Rwanda to seek shelter elsewhere.
Rwandan Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo announced the relocation plans in a statement Friday, saying that keeping Burundian refugees in her country exposes them “to increased threats from forces at home and compromises lasting political solutions.”
“For Rwanda, the growing risks to our national security from the Burundian impasse and misunderstandings in our foreign relations are unacceptable,” she added.
Burundi has been in a state of civil unrest since April, when Nkurunziza announced he planned to seek a controversial third term. He claimed the move abided by the country’s constitution; his opposition disagreed. Since then, some 400 people have been killed and more than 240,000 have fled the country — including more than 70,000 to neighboring Rwanda.
Kigali’s announcement comes just two days after top American diplomats told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee they believed that reports Rwanda is arming Burundian refugees to topple the Burundian government are “credible.” Assistant Secretary of State Linda Thomas-Greenfield said Washington urged the Rwandan government “to play a productive role and not to do anything that might further destabilize Burundi.”
And Thomas Perriello, special envoy to the African Great Lakes region, said he had met three former Burundian child soldiers who told him they were trained by Rwanda.
Reports Rwanda is arming the opposition have infuriated Burundi’s central government, which has accused Rwandan President Paul Kagame of interfering in their internal conflict and threatening to destabilize the entire region.
On Wednesday, Burundian Ambassador to Washington Ernest Ndabashinze told Foreign Policy that “if Rwanda continues to support the opposition rebels, then Burundi will be ready to defend itself.”
“We are always ready to fight against whoever attacks us,” he said.
But there are also concerns that Burundi’s focus on Rwanda’s potential role in the conflict is an effort by Nkurunziza’s administration to distract the international community from human rights violations being carried out by the Burundian government. In December, for example, Burundian security forces reportedly shot dead dozens of people in Bujumbura’s streets, and Amnesty International believes their bodies have since been buried in mass graves. Burundi’s refusal to allow peacekeepers and additional human rights monitors into the country has furthered concerns they have something to hide.
Rwanda’s move to expel refugees backtracks on earlier reports that Kagame’s administration would not force Burundians to leave, and could indicate Rwanda’s growing concern over the West’s involvement in the escalating crisis. On Wednesday, Mushikiwabo — the same minister who made Friday’s announcement — reportedly said “we are not going to kick out Burundians fleeing the country because they are not friends with their government.”
Photo Credit: STEPHANIE AGLIETTI/AFP/Getty Images