According to Elise Villechalane, the Spokesperson of the UNHCR in Rwanda, technical teams from both countries have been meeting to assess the repatriation process, which has to be agreed upon between Rwanda and Burundi, with the support of UNHCR.
“So far we have 3,637 people who have registered to return home. Over 500 will be transported back home this week. We expect to see more convoys at least every week as more people continue to express the interest to voluntarily return home,” Villechalane said.
Villechalane added that screening activities are ongoing to ascertain those who are ready to voluntarily return home; this includes assessing their health status to see if they need special support, details of where they will go in their home country and the specific needs of each of the refugees.
UNHCR said that pre-departure assessment estimates that over 500 people will be repatriated this Thursday but the final figure will be determined before the D-day as the number of people is expected to increase.
The first group departed last month after sides from Rwanda and Burundi met to agree on the repatriation process. Officials from the Ministries responsible for refugees and military intelligence chief from both sides met to discuss the refugee situation.
Though the repatriation of Burundian refugees to their home country has raised hope of the refugee crisis in the East African region relenting, the UNHCR says it is facing major challenges in regard to the budgetary resources needed support the process.
Calling on the international community and donors to support the process, Villechalane said: “There are more Burundian refugees returning home from different countries, not just the ones in Rwanda Rwanda. There was no budget for this, which means that UNHCR has to find resources by all means so that the refugees can be helped to return home.”
Villechalane also explained that repatriating refugees during the COVID-19 pandemic has turned out to be a strenuous process, since all people who want to return home voluntarily must be tested for the New Coronavirus, as part of the protocol, before they are allowed entry into Burundi.
“We are thankful to the Ministry of Health of Rwanda and Rwanda Biomedical Centre for facilitating this process by conducting tests on refugees who want to voluntarily return home but generally COVID-19 has made it made more difficult for us to carry out this exercise,” she said.
Rwanda is home to some 70, 000 Burundian refugees, 60, 000 of whom are in Mahama Camp located in Kirehe district, Eastern Province. Majority fled the country in 2015 as the country descended into a political conflict triggered by late President Nkurunziza’s decision to seek a third term.
Some Burundian refugees in Rwanda remain reluctant to return home, fearing reprisal attacks, with many accusing President Ndayishimiye of not making assurances on safety.