(New York) - The Tanzanian and Ugandan governments should ensure that refugees living in camps due to close on June 30 and July 31, 2009 are not forcibly returned to their home countries and are immediately given full information about their options, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch also urged both governments to avoid repeating Rwanda's unlawful forced return of up to 504 refugees to Burundi at gunpoint on June 2, after it closed its last refugee camp for Burundians.
Tanzania, with 36,000 Burundian refugees, and Uganda, with 17,000 Rwandan refugees, have signed agreements with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to facilitate the safe return of refugees who wish to go home, and to find alternatives for those who do not. However, despite the looming camp closing deadlines of June 30 for Tanzania and July 31 for Uganda, neither government has publicly explained the alternatives. Instead, both have threatened the refugees with forced return, saying that after the closures the remaining refugees will be "stripped" of their refugee status and treated as "illegal immigrants." Both positions would be unlawful under international refugee law.
"Both countries need to end their threats and clearly explain to the refugees what options are on the table," said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "Refugees do not lose their status as refugees simply because their camps are closed, and they should not be forcibly returned to their countries."
In Tanzania's Mtabila refugee camp, witnesses told Human Rights Watch that Tanzanian officials have "consolidated" the camp by burning or bulldozing houses. Evicted refugees have not received new building materials, so they have been forced to live in makeshift shelters. The officials have also reportedly told refugees they have no choice but to return home because when the camp closes on June 30 it will become a military camp, saying that "soldiers and refugees don't mix." Tanzania caused an international outcry in 1996 when it forcibly returned hundreds of thousands of Rwandan refugees to Rwanda, followed by the forcible return of thousands of Rwandan and Burundian refugees and asylum seekers in 2006 and 2007.
In Uganda in recent weeks, hundreds of Rwandan refugees are reported to have fled their camps to other parts of the country, fearing forced return to Rwanda.
Human Rights Watch expressed concern that Tanzania and Uganda had not done enough to reassure refugees that they would not copy Rwanda's recent unlawful forced return of Burundian refugees. On June 2, Rwandan military and police surrounded up to 504 refugees at the Kigeme refugee camp, beat some refugees with batons, and forced them at gunpoint onto buses and trucks, which then drove them to the border with Burundi. The UN refugee agency has condemned Rwanda's action.
The agency says it has received assurances from both the Tanzanian and the Ugandan authorities that none of the refugees will be forcibly returned. It is also negotiating with the Tanzanian authorities to extend the June 30 deadline for several months to ensure that refugees choosing to go home can do so in a safe, dignified and orderly manner.
Since 2002, hundreds of thousands of Burundian refugees have left Tanzania to return home and thousands of Rwandan refugees have returned home from Uganda. Organizations working with Tanzania's remaining 36,000 Burundian refugees in the Mtabila refugee camp say many are afraid to return to Burundi because of land disputes there. Many of Uganda's remaining 17,000 Rwandan refugees, who fled after the country's 1994 genocide, reportedly fear retribution either in the Rwandan justice system, still struggling to try genocide suspects fairly, or directly at the hands of the authorities.
Under international refugee law, Tanzania and Uganda, together with the UN refugee agency, can invoke a "cessation clause" if they believe the circumstances leading to the original refugee flow have ceased, allowing them to withdraw refugee status for the remaining refugees as a group.
To date, neither government has done so, preferring to make so-called "tripartite agreements" with the refugee agency under which the refugees are encouraged to return home voluntarily and which refer to alternative solutions, such as local integration, for those not returning. However, neither of the governments nor the refugee agency has explained to the refugees exactly what such alternative solutions might involve.
"Tanzania and Uganda should swiftly begin to inform the refugees of all the options, including the long-term solutions they envisage for refugees choosing not to go home," said Gagnon. "To avoid repeating Rwanda's recent appalling conduct, both Uganda and Tanzania should urgently and publicly reassure refugees that they will not use threats or force to coerce refugees to return home."
Although Tanzania and Uganda have been hosts to hundreds of thousands of refugees over the past few decades and Tanzania is registering applications for naturalization from tens of thousands of Burundian refugees who fled their country in 1972, there is a troubling history of forced return of refugees in the Great Lakes region. In addition to its forced return of hundreds of thousands of Rwandans in 1996, Tanzania began a campaign in 2006 to reduce the number of what it termed "illegal immigrants." In violent roundups, military and police expelled thousands of registered Rwandan and Burundian refugees living in camps, as well as an unknown number of people with valid asylum claims living outside the camps.
In 2005, Burundi forcibly returned 6,500 Rwandan asylum seekers, many of whom eventually managed to return to Burundi and claim asylum. In March 2009, the governor of Rwanda's Southern Province told the remaining Burundian refugees in Kigeme camp that if they did not return home voluntarily, they would be forcibly repatriated. Adding that "our brothers and sisters were kicked out from Burundi and had to leave everything behind," the governor appeared to imply that Rwanda would pay Burundians back for what they had done to Rwandan refugees in 2005.