Panafrican News Agency

Rights group urges Tanzania to ensure repatriations of Burundians are voluntary

Nairobi, Kenya (PANA) – International human rights watchdog, Human Rights Watch, has urged Tanzania to protect Burundian refugees fleeing widespread abuses instead of requiring them to return to Burundi against their will.

Tanzanian authorities have announced a plan to send all 183,000 Burundian refugees in Tanzania back to Burundi by the end of 2019.

Instead, the authorities should allow refugees fearing persecution to remain in Tanzania, the human sights group said on Thursday.

“Tanzania should publicly state that refugees will not be forcibly returned or coerced into registering for repatriation to Burundi,” said Bill Frelick, refugee rights director at Human Rights Watch. “Tanzania and neighboring countries, supported by international partners, should urgently assist and protect Burundians facing continuing abuse in Burundi.”

Burundi plunged into a widespread political, human rights, and humanitarian crisis when President Pierre Nkurunziza announced his decision to run for a controversial third term in 2015, triggering widespread protests.

Following a failed coup by military officers in May 2015, the government intensified its crackdown on protesters, pushing over 400,000 to flee the country.

Human rights abuses have continued, particularly against real or perceived members of the opposition, ahead of legislative and presidential elections scheduled for May 2020.

Human Rights Watch said the Tanzanian position on Burundian refugees’ situation "is not clear".

It noted that in August 2019, Interior Minister Kangi Lugola said that starting 1 October, “2,000 refugees…will be repatriated every week until there are no more Burundian refugees in Tanzania”. The statement raised concerns that the government would forcibly return refugees to Burundi.  

However, on 17 September, during the 42nd session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, the deputy permanent representative of Tanzania, Robert Kainunula Vedasto Kahendaguza, called for the international community to support the world’s most under-financed refugee crisis by funding “the repatriation of all Burundian refugees who have registered to do so” under a 2017 voluntary repatriation arrangement.

Human Rights Watch said Kahedaguza did not state that refugees would be forced to return to Burundi, creating confusion over whether the authorities will begin repatriating Burundian refugees on 1 October, as Lugola had announced.  

It said on 24 August, the day before Lugola’s announcement, Burundi and Tanzania signed an agreement, which says the presence of refugees in Tanzania has created the illusion within the international community that Burundi is not peaceful and that therefore “refugees are to return to their country of origin whether voluntarily or not” by 31 December.

In a media statement responding to the August agreement, a UN refugee agency spokesperson said in late August that hundreds of people are still fleeing Burundi each month and that conditions in the country are “not conducive to promote returns”.

“There are clear signs that authorities are trying to force Burundian refugees to return, against international and African standards,” Frelick said. “The AU should urgently request clarification from Burundi and Tanzania on whether they plan to carry out their recent deal. If there ever was an opportunity for the AU to hold members accountable to their refugee protection obligations, this is it.”

-0- PANA MA 20Sept2019