KAMPALA, Uganda – Uganda's government on Tuesday defended the forced repatriation of 1,700 Rwandan refugees, action that the U.N. refugee agency condemned for being heavy-handed. Two people died while trying to escape the roundup.
The Rwandans were forced out of Uganda last week because they had no refugee status and had become a security risk, said Tarsis Kabwegyere, Uganda's minister of relief and disaster preparedness.
Security concerns have risen in Uganda since twin bombings on July 11 killed 76 people during the World Cup final.
The U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, said last Friday that Ugandan authorities used false pretenses to round up the refugees.
Rwandan asylum-seekers had gathered for food distributions but were forcefully rounded up onto trucks without their possessions on July 14, UNHCR said. At another site, people gathered believing they would be informed of the results of their asylum claim, but police intervened, fired shots and forced people onto trucks, the agency said.
Two people died when they jumped off trucks en route to Rwanda, and children were separated from their parents, UNHCR said. The agency said it had received confirmation that recognized refugees were among those forced to return.
A prominent opposition politician in Rwanda, Victoire Ingabire, criticized the deportations and said they come at a time of deepening insecurity in Rwanda. An opposition candidate was recently killed, as was an opposition journalist said to be investigating the shooting of a dissident Rwandan general living in South Africa.
Ingabire is an ethnic Hutu, as are many of the Rwandan refugees in Uganda. Rwanda's government is led by ethnic Tutsis.
Rwanda holds a presidential election in August, and human rights groups have accused the government of a crackdown ahead of the vote. Rwandan officials have denied those accusations.
Kabwegyere said that about 70 refugees ran from authorities during the roundup and that authorities are searching for them. Kabwegyere says Uganda still hosts 10,000 Rwandans who hold refugee status.
"The group had become a source of insecurity in the settlement since they were not under any authority nor were they being assisted by UNHCR," he said. "We therefore had to act quickly to remove them from the settlement."
Four minors separated from their parents have been reunited, Kabwegyere said.
"The difference between an asylum seeker, refugee and an immigrant should be very clear to those who claim to be champions of refugee rights," Kabwegyere said.