Rwanda has expelled more than 1,300 Burundians in the past week after they refused to move to refugee camps, senior Burundi officials said on Monday, amid signs a political crisis is testing relations between the neighbouring countries.
Rwandan officials were not immediately available for comment on the reported removals of Burundians who had been working there, many of them for years – an account confirmed by one of those affected.
Rwanda has been hosting tens of thousands of people who have fled more than a year of political violence in Burundi – and others who have crossed the border for years for work, often without formal permission.
“They were asked to go to refugee camps or return back to Burundi,” the governor of Burundi’s Kirundo province next to the Rwandan border, Melchior Nankwahomba, told Reuters by phone.
“Those who refused to go to refugee camps were chased … and stripped of their possessions,” he said, adding that they were pushed out by local officials.
Burundi has accused Rwanda of interfereing in its political crisis – which has seen Burundian government forces clash with protesters and rebels who say the president violated the constitution by standing for a third term last year.
Rwanda has denied Burundi’s accusations.
But the violence in Burundi has rattled Rwanda and other countries across the central African region were there are still fresh memories of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, which like Burundi has a Hutu majority and Tutsi minority.
Rwandan President Paul Kagame, a Tutsi, has said in the past he would not allow a repeat of the genocide in the region and has been critical of the handling of the crisis by President Pierre Nkurunziza, who led a Hutu rebel group in Burundi’s civil war.
Western diplomats say Rwanda could intervene if Tutsis became a target, although Burundi’s crisis has so far largely divided opponents on political lines rather than ethnic splits.
One of those told to leave Rwanda, a 45-year-old man who only gave his name as Gilbert, said the Rwandan authorities said he could return to retrieve his belongings if he secured permission once he had returned to Burundi.
“We came without anything,” he said.
Nankwahomba put the number expelled at 1,300, while a Burundian Interior Ministry official said the total was around 1,500, with 1,300 coming from Kirundo province alone.
More than 450 people have been killed in Burundi’s violence in the past year and at least three armed rebel groups have emerged. About a quarter of million people have fled Burundi to neighbouring states, such as Rwanda and Tanzania.