As an organization that continues to advocate for the protection of displaced Burundians, Refugees International (RI) was concerned by comments attributed to the Ugandan Minister for Disaster Preparedness and Refugees on February 15, 2017.
International media quoted the minister as saying of Uganda’s Burundian refugee population, "You are given a visa to stay here for three months and if your visa is expired, we shall not do it like Trump but we shall advise them quietly to go back…Burundi is peaceful as we know it and they have finished the agreement in Arusha, then those who want to continue here as refugees shall be turned over to immigration." RI notes that shortly after the Minister’s reported remarks, peace talks that opened today between Burundian political groups in Arusha, Tanzania, were thrown into disarray when the government of President Pierre Nkurunziza declined to participate. Moreover, as the UN and civil society organizations have reported, targeted persecution and violence – including extrajudicial killings, torture, and rape – continue in Burundi, leading to the flight of nearly 400,000 refugees and an unknown number of internally-displaced persons since April 2015. As such, the necessary conditions for safe and dignified refugee return to Burundi are wholly absent.
In comments made to RI on February 16, 2017, a senior Ugandan official with responsibility for the matter clarified that Uganda’s policy with respect to Burundian refugees had not changed.
The official acknowledged that Burundian refugees indicated a continued unwillingness to return, and told RI, “There is not going to be any forceful return of Burundian refugees.” The official stated that if returns take place, “It will be done under a tripartite arrangement with UNHCR [the United Nations Refugee Agency] – if it is to be done at all – when conditions are such that the refugees here feel safe to return, and in a dignified manner…This is the position of the government of Uganda. We can’t go against the international conventions and forcefully repatriate or return persons to areas where they feel they are not safe to return.”
RI welcomes this important clarification and applauds Uganda’s generous refugee policy.
RI also urges other nations in the region – particularly the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, and Tanzania – to respect Burundians’ right to seek asylum and to grant prima facie refugee status to Burundians on the basis of continued persecution and insecurity in their home country. Finally, RI encourages the United States government and its European partners to contribute to the UNHCR 2017 Burundi Regional Refugee Response Plan and to provide support for communities hosting Burundian refugees.