Nairobi, Kenya (PANA) – The fear of violence, arrest, and deportation is driving many of the 163,000 Burundian refugees and asylum seekers in Tanzania out of the country, Human Rights Watch said on Thursday.
Tanzanian authorities have also made it very difficult for the United Nations refugee agency to properly check whether hundreds of refugees’ recent decision to return to Burundi was voluntary, the human rights watchdog said.
It noted that in October and November 2019, Tanzanian officials specifically targeted parts of the Burundian refugee population whose insecure legal status and lack of access to aid make them particularly vulnerable to coerced return to Burundi.
The actions come after the Tanzanian president, John Magufuli, said on 11 October that Burundian refugees should “go home”.
“Refugees say police abuses, insecurity in Tanzania’s refugee camps, and deportation threats drove them out of the country,” said Bill Frelick,, refugee rights director at Human Rights Watch. “Tanzania should reverse course before it ends up unlawfully coercing thousands more to leave.”
Human Rights Watch said in mid-November, it interviewed 20 Burundian refugees in Uganda who described the pressure that caused them to leave Tanzania between August 2018 and October 2019.
Seven returned to Burundi but said they then fled to Uganda to escape members of the Burundian ruling party’s youth league, the Imbonerakure, who threatened, intimidated, or arbitrarily arrested them. Thirteen went directly to Uganda.
Refugees said their reasons for leaving Tanzania include fear of getting caught up in a spate of arrests, and alleged disappearances and killings in or near refugee camps and fear of suspected members of the Imbonerakure and of abusive Burundian refugees working with Tanzanian police on camp security.
They also cited the government’s threats to deport Burundian refugees, the closing and destruction of markets, restrictions on commercial activities, and lack of access to services in the camps and freedom of movement.
The statement said on 3 December, Tanzanian Home Affairs Minister Kangi Lugola denied that the government is "expelling" refugees, and said the Tanzanian and Burundian authorities “merely mobilise, to encourage those who are ready to return on their own accord, to go back”.
A 6 December Human Rights Watch report documented widespread abuses by members of the youth league, often working with local Burundian administrators.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said in August that conditions in Burundi were not safe or stable enough for it to encourage refugees to return, and that it would only facilitate voluntary returns.
The 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1969 African Refugee Convention prohibit refoulement, the return of refugees in any manner whatsoever to places where their lives or freedom would be threatened.
UNHCR says that refoulement occurs not only when a government directly rejects or expels a refugee, but also when indirect pressure is so intense that it leads people to believe they have no option but to return to a country where they face a serious risk of harm.
Human Rights Watch said between September 2017 and the end of October 2019, 78,380 Burundians – about 725 a week – left Tanzania under an agreement between Burundi, Tanzania, and the UNHCR, which tasks UNHCR with conducting detailed interviews with refugees to ensure they are leaving Tanzania voluntarily.
The number is well below the target of 2,000 a week Tanzania and Burundi agreed on in March 2018. A 24 August, 2019 agreement between Tanzania and Burundi says all the refugees “are to return to their country of origin whether voluntarily or not” by December 31.
A government’s duty to protect refugee rights should not be assessed based on statistics but on a case-by-case basis, Human Rights Watch said.
The fact that some or many refugees can stay in a host country is not evidence that those who leave do so voluntarily or that they did not leave due to coercion.
-0- PANA MA 12Dec2019