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Interview: Rwanda’s Street Children Locked up, Abused

Satellite image showing the location of Gikondo Transit Center, Kigali, Rwanda. © Maxar Technologies 2020. Source: GoogleEarth

Rwandan authorities are rounding up street children in Kigali and detaining them in a so-called “transit” center where guards beat them and there isn’t enough food or water. This is one of the ways Kigali keeps its pristine image – an image often lauded in travel articles. Human Rights Watch’s Amy Braunschweiger speaks with Central Africa Director Lewis Mudge about Human Rights Watch’s new report and the human cost of keeping Rwanda’s streets clean.

So what exactly is happening to Kigali’s street children?

They’re being rounded up, mostly by police, and taken to a site called Gikondo Transit Center as part of a “rehabilitation process,” as the Rwandan authorities call it. In reality the center operates as unofficial detention facility. The kids aren’t given due process, or access to a lawyer or guardian. They are not brought before a judge. Instead they are kept for weeks to months at a time in terrible conditions. And in most cases, they’re released back onto the streets, threatened, and told they’ll be arrested if they’re found on the streets again.

Some kids told us the food in Gikondo was rotten maize with grit, and clearly insufficient. There wasn’t enough water. Some kids said they shared mattresses with three or four others and that the blankets were covered in lice. Many said they got rashes and skin infections from sharing mattresses. They were regularly beaten for laughing or chatting with friends or making noise. They were bored. They spent all day sitting in this room, and they were forbidden from talking to each other and were often hungry. In some cases, children weren’t allowed to call their parents, if they knew where they were. For example, one boy said he was beaten by a police officer because he asked to call his parents to tell them he was at Gikondo but didn’t have money to pay for phone credit.

Some girls were called “prostitutes” and placed in a room with adult women.

Many of the youngest children said they were kept in a separate room without adults, and they didn’t seem to face as much abuse as the older teenagers who were accused of being delinquents and who were held with adults. The younger kids could bathe daily, but that’s not the case for those held with adults.

“There is nothing good there,” a former Gikondo detainee tells Human Rights Watch about the center in 2015.  © 2015 Human Rights Watch

There was zero education or vocational training, unlike what authorities claim. There is no question that this is arbitrary detention. And it is certainly not rehabilitation.

You’re releasing the report to coincide with Rwanda’s review by the Committee on the Rights of the Child, which has already called on the government to close Gikondo. Can the committee force Rwanda to close the center?

No. But as a party to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, Rwanda has agreed to abide by the terms of that treaty, and the Committee is the adjudicator of whether that is happening. So what the committee can – and undoubtedly will – continue to point out is that Rwanda is in violation of this convention and not complying with its obligations under international human rights law. And that’s powerful.

Also, given the lack of space in Rwanda for people to question the government, or for journalists or civil society to report independently on abuses, the committee is a rare independent body to ask the government tough questions.

One reason Kigali is often described as one of the cleanest, most orderly cities in Africa is because law enforcement arbitrarily round up people deemed “undesirable” and keep them out of sight, often in so-called transit or rehabilitation centers.  © 2015 Human Rights Watch

When you read articles on Kigali, journalists often observe how clean and safe the city is. Is there a relationship between this and these roundups?

Kigali is presented as one of the cleanest and safest cities in Africa. And it is – I’ve lived there and in many other African cities. It’s very clean and very controlled and considered very safe by visitors. This is partly because very poor people, including street children, are rounded up and detained against their will.

We’re not saying children should be left to live on the streets, but we want these kids to have meaningful support and to be treated respectfully, with dignity. Arbitrarily detaining them is a violation of their rights.

Human Rights Watch has published a number of reports on Gikondo, starting in 2006. How has Rwanda responded?

Usually after we publish a report, Rwanda will make some improvements, which unfortunately appear to be superficial or technical. For example, after the 2006 report, they shut down Gikondo centre and stopped detaining children for a while, letting things cool off.

Other reports on Gikondo also focused on the plight of street vendors, sex workers, the homeless, and beggars detained there.

In 2015, we called Rwanda’s government out for its lack of a legal framework around detention in Gikondo. Over the next few years, the government introduced new legislation and policies around “reintegrating” people with “deviant behaviors,” which basically enshrined the government’s arbitrary procedures and detentions. The experience for people locked up in Gikondo hasn’t changed much.

A former Gikondo detainee uses a satellite image of the transit center to indicate which rooms were used for different categories of detainees, when he was there.  © 2015 Human Rights Watch

Rwanda did create a “rehabilitation center” in Bugesera District specifically for children and women, called Gitagata, where authorities said detainees would get vocational training, support, and the opportunity to reunite with their families. And while Gitagata appears to be better than Gikondo, the kids we spoke to said living on the streets – where you didn’t know where your next meal would come from – was better.

What we want is Gikondo to be shut down. We’re not there yet, but we’ll keep at it.

Did any of the children you spoke with stand out to you?

There’s a few. They’re quite painful interviews to do. Some of the kids are so young, just 11 or 12, and they were so resigned to the abuse as they explained what happened to them, it was normal for them to get rounded up and beaten up.

There was one boy, 15 or 16, who was held in the delinquent room with other adults and explained that there was so little space that they all had to sit in between each others’ legs. Another boy said he wasn’t allowed to leave the room and go to the toilet when he needed to, and when he defecated on himself, he was beaten for it. All because he had been detained for living on the street.

We spoke to another boy who said that police told him they were taking him to Gikondo because the president didn’t want him on the street.

These children weren’t getting the help or support they needed. And as if living on the streets wasn’t already tough, they were forced to hide for fear that they’d be rounded up. Then, you hear about children as young as 11 who were detained being held in these awful conditions. Clearly, the system isn’t working.

Honestly, over the last nine years I’ve been interviewing people who were locked up in Gikondo, the stories haven’t changed much.

What are these kids doing now?

A lot of them go back to living on the streets when they’re released and are usually detained again sooner or later. Some children said they’d been to Gikondo five or six times. They’re not getting much support. And, as ever, when big events take place in Kigali – say, foreign visitors come to the city – the police will “clear” the streets and take them to Gikondo again.

It’s not a great life. There should be support for these kids, education and vocational training to help ensure rehabilitation. The government should do what they’re claiming to do and actually rehabilitate these kids.  

I lived in Kigali for a number of years and Gikondo is literally a 5-minute drive from the city’s most upscale restaurants and hotels. The city is clean, it is safe, I raised my first child there, it’s a great place to be. But there’s another side to the city, one that revolves around repression and abuse of its most vulnerable people. Kigali can stay safe and clean without resorting to this. The government should do better.

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