At least 36 Burundian refugees have been killed by security forces in the Democratic Republic of Congo as a result of a recent set of clashes prompted by the announcement of plans to return several of them to Burundi.
Security forces in the DR Congo fired upon protestors in the town of Kamanyola, who had gathered both in objection of the government’s recently announced refugee resettlement plan and to free some of those who had been slated to be returned to Burundi. This government plan would result in select asylum-seeking Burundians currently in DR Congo to be returned to Burundi. According to the UN envoy to DR Congo, Maman Sidikou, violence erupted between the gathered Burundians and security forces after an attempt to scatter the growing body of demonstrators was made by firing indiscriminately into the air. The protesters promptly responded by hurling stones at the security forces, which resulted in the death of a Congolese soldier. Security forces then began firing upon the protestors themselves. In addition to the 36 killed, 117 were injured, with many being airlifted to nearby hospitals. Speaking to the Associated Press, Waquara Yunusi, a commander in the UN peacekeeping mission to DR Congo, stated that 15 of the 36 killed were women, making suspect the Congolese army claims that the refugees were men armed with knives and machetes.
According to the National Post, the DR Congo has sheltered at least 44 000 refugees from Burundi since 2015, when political violence erupted across the country in response to President Pierre Nkurunziza’s victory in the national elections. Seeking his third term in office – a bid the opposition deemed unconstitutional – many Burundians opposed Nkurunziza’s aspirations, flooding the streets of the nation’s capital, Bujumbura, in protest. Government forces responded with rapid and intense violence, injuring many and killing upwards of 500 according to UN observers in the country. Escalating violence by both government forces and opposition groups has prompted many in the capital and surrounding areas to flee their homes, with at least 400,000 fleeing into neighbouring countries of Rwanda, Tanzania and DR Congo, according to Al Jazeera.
The recent violence has prompted the UN and Congolese government to dispatch an investigative team to the area to determine the series of events leading up to the violence, as well as the reasoning behind the recent detention of several Burundian refugees. Despite this, both UN and Congolese officials have been criticized for the harsh treatment of Burundian refugees, with the foreign minister of Burundi, Alain Aime Nyamitwe calling for an immediate explanation for the shootings. With the unrest in Burundi increasingly intensifying – many observers fear the eruption of civil war, or worse – it is hoped that those in flight can rely on their neighbours for asylum. International agencies present in the region should help to facilitate this, ensuring that government forces operate within the bounds of international law regarding the treatment of refugees. It is hoped that the investigation results in both an understanding of the tensions which resulted in such terrible violence, as well as the formation of strategies which can both diffuse pressures and empower agencies in the region to provide the growing number of Burundian refugees with what they need to thrive. Through this, the community can remain coherent and hopeful, despite the growing storm which has forced them out of their homes.