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A Tanzanian policeman watches over as Burundian refugees gather on the shores of Lake Tanganyika in Kagunga village in Kigoma region in western Tanzania, where they wait for transport to Kigoma township, May 17, 2015. © 2015 Thomas Mukoya/Reuters

(Nairobi) – Tanzania should 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.

“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.

The Tanzanian position on Burundian refugees’ situation is not clear. In August 2019, Interior Minister Kangi Lugola said that starting October 1, “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 September 17, 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 underfinanced refugee crisis by funding “the repatriation of all Burundian refugees who have registered to do so” under a 2017 voluntary repatriation arrangement.

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 October 1, as Lugola had announced.

On August 24, the day before Lugola’s announcement, Burundi and Tanzania signed an agreement, seen by Human Rights Watch, 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 December 31.

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.”

Tanzania and Burundi first set a goal in March 2018 of ensuring that 2,000 Burundians would voluntarily return to Burundi each week under a 2017 tripartite agreement with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to facilitate – not promote – the voluntary repatriation of Burundian refugees. However, the return rate has been far lower, with only 74,088 returning between September 2017 and July 31, 2019. As of August, just over 180,000 Burundian refugees were still living in the three camps in the northwestern region of Kigoma.

The 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1969 African Refugee Convention prohibit refoulement, the return of refugees to places where their lives, physical integrity, or freedom would be threatened. Refoulement occurs not only when a refugee is directly rejected or expelled, but also when indirect pressure is so intense that it leads people to believe that they have no option but to return to a country where they face a serious risk of harm.

Since mid-2017, conditions have deteriorated in the refugee camps in Tanzania, due to chronic underfunding of aid operations for Burundian refugees in the region. There were food ration cuts between August 2017 and October 2018; a ban on refugees leaving the camps, including to find work or firewood; violence against some who leave the camps; and pressure to return to Burundi by Tanzanian officials. There also has been reported insecurity in the camps and threats against refugees by members of the Burundian ruling party’s youth league, the Imbonerakure.

In August 2018, the protection chief of the UNHCR, called on Tanzania “not to pressure … refugees directly or indirectly to influence their decision to return.”

Some Burundian refugees say they have felt additional pressure since the interior minister’s announcement, citing worsening camp conditions. One refugee in Nyarugusu camp, speaking to Human Rights Watch on condition of anonymity, said: “Some have already decided to leave because life in the camps has become impossible. On September 9, they closed the informal market in our camp. They had already banned motorbikes. They want to make conditions unlivable, so that we have no choice but to leave.”

Refugees have faced abuse in the recent past after returning to Burundi. On September 17, the UN Commission of Inquiry on Burundi said that some Burundians returning from abroad, and in some cases members of their family, “were victims of serious violations including cases of disappearance, torture or ill-treatment, arbitrary arrests and detention. They felt compelled to flee once more because they feared for their safety.”

“I’m not part of any political party, but the government considers me a dissident because I fled Burundi,” a 26-year-old refugee in Nyarugusu camp who also asked to remain anonymous told Human Rights Watch during a phone interview. “When we heard that everyone was going to be sent back, I was afraid. I prefer to die here than to go back. They think I took part in the coup d’état, and since I left in 2015, the Imbonerakure have threatened me often.”

In June 2019, Human Rights Watch published a report documenting worrying patterns of abuse, including killings, disappearances, arbitrary arrests, and beatings, mostly by Imbonerakure members and local authorities and targeting real or perceived members of the recently registered opposition party, the National Congress for Freedom (CNL, Congrès National pour la Liberté).

The Commission of Inquiry’s latest report on Burundi, published on September 4, concluded that “serious human rights violations – including crimes against humanity – have continued… across the country.” The targets, it said, were, in particular, real and suspected opposition supporters, Burundians who have returned from abroad, and human rights defenders. Although Nkurunziza has said he will not run for president again, the commission drew particular attention to the “major risk” posed by the 2020 election.

The African Union (AU) has declared 2019 the year of “refugees, returnees, and internally displaced persons,” and its members, including Tanzania, have committed themselves to strong regional refugee protection.

“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.”

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