On Rwandan recruitment of Burundian refugees into a new rebel army in Africa’s war ravaged Great Lakes Region.
By Ann Garrison
KPFA Weekend News, 01.09.2015.
Mahama Refugee Camp for Burundian refugees, on the Rwandan side of the Rwandan/Burundian border KPFA News Anchor Sharon Sobotta: In December last year, the NGO Refugees International released a report titled, “Asylum Betrayed: Recruitment of Burundian Refugees in Rwanda.” KPFA’s Ann Garrison spoke to Michael Boyce, one of the report’s authors, about this ongoing situation.
KPFA/Ann Garrison: Michael Boyce, can you summarize the main points of the report that Refugees International released in December?
Michael Boyce: The main points of the report are that from April to today, we’ve seen roughly 70,000 Burundian refugees flowing into Rwanda. Of those, about 40,000 are living in the refugee camp called Mahama in the southeast of the country. And what we know is that, for the past six months or so, we’ve had more than 80 individual refugees come forward to say that they are being pressured to join, or have indeed joined, non-state armed groups, armed groups that are trying to go back to Burundi and wrest control of the country’s government from the sitting president, Pierre Nkurunziza.
And what we also know is that many of these people have not wanted to sign up for this armed effort. And we know that many of them are scared, because by refusing to join up for this armed effort, they are pressured, they are threatened, they are sometimes physically abused. What we know also is that, unfortunately, according to what many refugees have said, Rwandan officials are involved in this recruitment effort at various stages. And that is of course of great concern as well because Rwanda’s responsibility as a host of refugees is to make sure that they are safe, that they are well cared for and that they can live in peace. And, so any effort by any Rwandan official to try and recruit refugees for armed groups is a grave violation of international law.
KPFA: Isn’t it also a violation of international law to be planning cross border aggression like this?
Michael Boyce: Well, yes it is. The laws are quite clear on this, but what’s really important to emphasize as well is that this isn’t simply a legal issue. It’s also a humanitarian issue because refugee camps are meant to be places of safety, places of humanitarian assistance, places where human rights are respected. And when that humanitarian nature of a refugee camp is violated, of course it results in terrible consequences for the individual refugees themselves. But it also causes the refugee camp itself to be seen as a military instrument, something that potentially can be subjected to attack, subjected to violence because it’s an instrument of war. And that is extraordinarily dangerous and it’s something that we’ve seen, unfortunately many times over the years, particularly in the Great Lakes, which is why we’re asking the international community to take action.
KPFA: You asked that both Rwanda and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees take specific steps to stop the recruitment. Have they acknowledged the report and obliged?
MB: Well, I have not seen any formal acknowledgement from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees of this report. However, we believe they have received it and we expect that they are going to be working to combat and prevent these recruitment efforts going forward. We are particularly concerned about the reports that have Michael Boyce, Refugee Advocate with Refugees International come out of the recruitment of children.
As for the Rwandan government, different officials have essentially dismissed our reporting, have dismissed what the refugees have said.
KPFA: And what about the U.S. government?
MB: Well, last month, the U.S. State Department as a whole organization issued a statement saying that reports of refugee recruitment happening in Rwanda and in the wider region were of great concern and that such recruitment shouldn’t happen, and that those who carry out recruitment might be subjected to sanctions or other punitive measures from the United States. And indeed, refugees have said, over the past few months, that a certain Burundian opposition party, the Movement for Solidarity and Democracy, was involved in recruitment. We ourselves couldn’t verify that, but we thought it was noteworthy that, last month, the U.S. did enact sanctions against Alexis Sinduhije, one of the leaders of this party.