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. 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.
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 October 11 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.”
In mid-November, Human Rights Watch 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.
On December 3, Tanzanian Home Affairs Minister Kangi Lugola denied that the government is “expelling” refugees, and said the Tanzanian and Burundian authorities “merely mobilize, to encourage those who are ready to return on their own accord, to go back.”
A refugee who returned from Tanzania to Burundi in August said: “I returned to Burundi because the Tanzanian authorities said those staying would be forced back… The police became increasingly violent and insecurity was the main reason I decided to return.” In late August, Imbonerakure members targeted him: “They arrested me, tied my arms behind my back and said, ‘you said you fled [Burundi] because of the Imbonerakure, but we are still here.’” He said his wife paid a bribe for his release and he fled to Uganda.
A December 6 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.
Between September 2017 and 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. An August 24, 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.
On November 9, UNHCR said that some Burundians signing up for voluntary return with UNHCR had “cited insecurity in refugee camps, fear of enforced return …, deteriorating living conditions …, prohibition of small commercial activities and closure of camp markets as the main reasons for their return.” The agency previously told Human Rights Watch that “push factors play a significant role” in refugees’ return decision, but that UNHCR considers their return to be voluntary because they have “made an informed decision” and “many other refugees” have decided to stay.
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.
Seven of the refugees Human Rights Watch interviewed said they returned to Burundi between March 2018 and June 2019. One refugee who left Tanzania’s Nduta camp for Uganda in August said he had helped many families register for return to Burundi: “Before August 2018, UNHCR asked people who registered many questions about their decision to return and gave them time to change their minds,” he said. “But now they don’t give time to think or ask questions. They immediately process people for return.”
UNHCR’s mandate requires it to ask refugees signing up for voluntary return about the reasons behind the decision to ensure the decision is truly voluntary.
A well-informed source said that after a recent “validation exercise” to verify the number of registered and unregistered Burundians living in camps in Tanzania, about 3,300 people were registered but not given “active status,” which means they have no clear legal status or access to assistance, and are particularly vulnerable to government intimidation and coerced return to Burundi.
In October, the Tanzanian authorities summoned these people and registered “hundreds” who said they wanted to return to Burundi. The authorities told them to report to a departure center, leaving UNHCR, which usually speaks to people leaving a few days beforehand to make sure they are leaving voluntarily, to conduct some interviews at the departure center “in less than ideal circumstances,” it said.
Human Rights Watch previously reported on the coerced return of hundreds of Burundian asylum seekers on October 15, after camp authorities said that if they did not register to return, they would be in the camps without legal status and aid.
In late October, UNHCR said Tanzania was increasing “pressure on Burundian refugees and asylum-seekers to return home.” In the second week of November, Tanzanian authorities banned 10 UNHCR staff involved in managing the refugee registration database from the camp.
Tanzanian authorities should ensure that UNHCR staff are able to properly verify the voluntary nature of refugees’ decision to return to Burundi, Human Rights Watch said. The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the African Union should send a team to visit the refugee camps and urge Tanzania not to directly or indirectly forcibly return asylum seekers or refugees.
“The African Union should publicly press the Tanzanian authorities to stop trying to bully refugees and the UN into submission,” Frelick said. “Tanzania claims it isn’t doing anything wrong, but Burundian refugees are telling us in clear terms that they are being driven out of the country.”