Six teenage members of the Burundi robotics team went missing after participating this week in an international competition in Washington, D.C., local police said Thursday. The competition—titled the FIRST Global Robotics Challenge—previously garnered attention after a team from Afghanistan was twice denied entry to the United States. President Trump later facilitated the approval of their visa requests, and the team went on to win a silver medal for courageous achievement.
As the competition came to a close on Tuesday, the Burundi team chaperone looked for his team members at the Trinity Washington University dorms, where they were staying. Instead, he found their bags packed and their keys returned to him. The last time the teenagers were spotted was at the competition that afternoon. The following day, local authorities posted missing person photographs of the teens, whose ages range from 16 to 18.
On Thursday, a D.C. spokeswoman said two of the team members—16-year-old Don Ingabire and 17-year-old Audrey Mwamikazi—were spotted crossing over into Canada. The sighting appeared to confirm authorities’ suspicion that the teens were intentionally seeking asylum from their home country. “We don’t have any indication of foul play,” said spokeswoman Margarita Mikhaylova. The competition’s organizers added that the security of students is “of paramount importance,” and that participants are given safe transportation to and from the Trinity dorms. They, too, believe the teenagers’ disappearance may have been “self-initiated.”
As the investigation continues, both Canadian and U.S. immigration authorities have remained relatively silent. While Canada’s Border Services Agency neither confirmed nor denied the reports, a spokeswoman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services declined to comment entirely. On Thursday, a member of the Burundian embassy told The Associated Press that Burundi officials had no prior knowledge of the team’s attendance at the competition until the chaperone contacted the embassy about the students’ disappearance.
While Burundi was plagued by genocide and civil war in the 1970s and again in the 1990s, recent years have marked another bout of heightened conflict in the region. Since the election of Burundi’s president to a third term in 2015, hundreds of thousands have fled the nation amid claims of torture, abduction, and murder. The United Nations estimates that more than 500 people have been killed in the latest conflict, with the vast majority of victims opposed to the president’s reelection. Meanwhile, the government has dismissed the allegations as being fabricated by opposition groups. In September, the president’s media adviser referred to the UN’s claims as “gratuitous assertions based on flying rumors and gossip.”
For the last two years, hundreds of thousands of Burundi refugees have settled in crowded camps in Tanzania, while tens of thousands more have migrated to Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Should the missing Burundi teenagers seek asylum in the U.S., it could take years for them to receive a court hearing, and several more thereafter to receive a formal interview. In the meantime, the teenagers could be detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The Canadian government, by contrast, allows refugees inside Canada to have their claims heard within 60 days of seeking asylum. On Thursday, the chairman of the United Burundian-American Community Association told the AP that Burundi citizens generally feel they have a better chance of achieving asylum in Canada, given the current immigration policies in the U.S.