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) – Tanzanian authorities unlawfully coerced more than 200 unregistered asylum seekers into returning to Burundi on October 15, 2019 by threatening to withhold their legal status in Tanzania, Human Rights Watch said today. The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) facilitated the returns by registering the asylum seekers under its voluntary repatriation program, despite threats from Tanzanian officials that they could risk arrest if they stayed in Tanzania.

The forced returns follow an August 24 agreement between Tanzania and Burundi that says about 180,000 Burundian refugees in Tanzania “are to return to their country of origin whether voluntarily or not” by December 31. On October 11, Tanzanian President John Magufuli said that Burundian refugees should “go home.” The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights should press Tanzania not to forcibly return asylum seekers or refugees, and UNHCR should not facilitate such returns.

“The Tanzanian authorities have intensified pressure on unregistered Burundian refugees to the point of coercion, violating their rights under international law,” said Bill Frelick, refugee rights director at Human Rights Watch. “Tanzania appears to be acting on its threat to drive out some 180,000 refugees who are at risk of serious harm in Burundi.”

In March 2018, Tanzania and Burundi agreed to repatriate 2,000 Burundians a week under a 2017 tripartite agreement with UNHCR to facilitate the voluntary repatriation of Burundian refugees. However, the actual rate has been far lower, with only 76,000 returning between September 2017 and September 2019, an average of about 730 a week.

Between July and September, UNHCR and Tanzanian authorities conducted a “validation exercise” to verify the number of registered and unregistered Burundians living in camps in Tanzania. Many unregistered Burundians have encountered obstacles to registration, two sources independently told Human Rights Watch. While the authorities have yet to publish the findings of the exercise, about 3,000 unregistered Burundians were identified, one of the sources said.

On October 11, 2019, camp authorities under the Tanzanian Home Affairs Ministry informed hundreds of unregistered Burundians living in at least one of three camps – Nduta, Nyarugusu, and Mtendeli – in Tanzania’s northwestern Kigoma region near the Burundi border that if they did not register for return they would be in the camps without legal status and could risk arrest, one source said. Those without legal status would receive some food assistance but no other support. Many registered immediately.

The forced return of over 200 people on October 15 comes against a backdrop of increasing pressure on all refugees living in the camps to return to Burundi, Human Rights Watch said. Since August, Tanzanian officials have made threatening public statements, closed down a market, and repeatedly changed administrative requirements for aid organizations operating in the camps. A recent agreement between the Burundian and Tanzanian police to allow cross-border operations by both police forces has heightened fears of arrest among refugees, local media reported.

On October 12, between 200 and 300 unregistered Burundians approached UNHCR officials in Nduta camp to sign up for voluntary repatriation, according to the two sources. The UNHCR officials only asked each person whether they wanted to return, but not other questions normally asked, including why they had decided to return, one source said. On October 15, they were among 812 Burundians whose repatriation was facilitated by the intergovernmental International Organization for Migration (IOM).

UNHCR, in response to Human Rights Watch findings provided on October 23, acknowledged that “refugees were added to the convoy on October 15 through government mobilization efforts” but that “it took issue with the suggestion that all [of them] were coerced.”

UNHCR disputed the Human Rights Watch allegation that UNHCR officials did not ask the Burundians registering to return further questions to determine whether their decision was genuinely voluntary. “In explaining their decision to return,” UNHCR said, “refugees referred to a variety of push and pull factors, as they weigh up the known challenging environments in both Burundi and in Tanzania,” and added that “no refugee stated that they were being forced back to Burundi.”

Under UNHCR guidelines, refugees and asylum seekers do not need to state explicitly that they are being forced back for UNHCR to conclude that their repatriation is involuntary, Human Rights Watch said. UNHCR should have fully taken into consideration that more than 200 asylum seekers asked to return to Burundi the day after camp authorities had threatened them with arrest if they did not “voluntarily return.” UNHCR did not appear to have done so.

UNHCR acknowledged “the increased amount of pressure being put on both refugees and our staff to increase the numbers of people returning each week,” but said that it “will continue to work with the government of Tanzania to seek adherence to principles of voluntariness in line with the tripartite agreement.”

The Tanzanian government’s actions have compounded an already deteriorating situation in the camps which increasingly risks coercing refugees into returning to Burundi, Human Rights Watch said. These include cuts in food rations between August 2017 and October 2018, a ban on refugees leaving the camps including to find work or firewood, and violence against some refugees who left the camps, as well as generalised insecurity. The Imbonerakure, the Burundian ruling party’s youth league, which has a long record of widespread human rights abuses, has reportedly harassed and threatened refugees in the camps.

Human Rights Watch expressed concern that the Tanzanian authorities’ successful coercion of over 200 unregistered Burundians on October 15 might lead the authorities to target more such people.

“Tanzania’s intimidation of unregistered Burundians in the camps appears to be just the first step in targeting the most vulnerable people in the camps,” Frelick said. “All international entities, including UNHCR, need to play a stronger role to protect and assist all Burundians seeking refuge in Tanzania.”

October 15 Repatriation

On October 16, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) informed humanitarian agencies in Tanzania that it had transported 812 Burundian refugees by convoy from Nduta camp in Tanzania to Nyabitare in Burundi the day before.

Two knowledgeable sources said that this number included most or all of a group of 251 refugees living in Nduta camp who had registered for voluntary return before October 10. Some or all of the 287 refugees living in two nearby Burundian refugee camps, who were transferred to Nduta camp on October 13, were most likely also included in this convoy.

The discrepancy between the 538 refugees who registered for voluntary return under normal procedures in all three camps, most or all of whom returned on October 15, and the total number of 812 returned to Burundi that day suggests that the convoy included over 200 Burundians coerced into leaving Tanzania by Nduta camp authorities just days before. The two sources corroborated that, saying that the group of 812 included up to 300 Burundians living in Nduta camp who had signed up after the October 11 meeting with Tanzanian authorities.

Situation in Burundi

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

Human Rights Watch in June documented grave patterns of abuse, including arbitrary arrests, beatings, enforced disappearances, and killings, mostly by Imbonerakure members and local authorities against suspected members of the opposition party National Congress for Freedom (Congrès National pour la Liberté).

UNHCR stated 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.

Legal Standards and UNHCR Guidelines on Voluntary Repatriation

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.

UNHCR’s Handbook on Voluntary Repatriation says that “registration for repatriation should not be viewed as a merely clerical task” and that staff who have received “comprehensive training” should “interview…the potential repatriants to obtain the relevant information, counselling them on issues of concern, answering questions on repatriation related issues [and] assessing vulnerability.”

UNHCR’s handbook also says that “registration for voluntary repatriation should not be directly linked to any other registration or verification (such as care and maintenance assistance),” that “linking the two may create confusion for the refugees by giving the impression that one needs to register for voluntary repatriation in order to be entitled to assistance in the country of asylum,” and that “this may seriously jeopardize voluntariness.”