(Nairobi) – The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child’s call for Rwanda to take “urgent measures” to end abuse of street children should be carried out immediately, Human Rights Watch said today. In observations released on February 13, 2020, the Geneva-based treaty body called for a halt to arbitrary detention of children in transit centers, for investigations into allegations of ill-treatment – including beatings –, and for amendments of the legal framework that regularizes this abuse.
On January 27, Human Rights Watch released a 44-page report, “‘As Long as We Live on the Streets, They Will Beat Us’: Rwanda’s Abusive Detention of Children,” documenting the arbitrary detention and ill-treatment of street children, who are held for up to six months at Gikondo Transit Center, in Kigali, the capital. Since 2017, new legislation and policies under the government’s strategy to “eradicate delinquency” have sought to legitimize and regulate so-called transit centers. But Human Rights Watch found that the new legislation provides cover for the police to round up and detain street children at Gikondo in deplorable and degrading conditions, and without due process or judicial oversight.
“The UN committee’s recommendations to the Rwandan government to take concrete steps to prevent the arbitrary detention and ill-treatment of children are important to stop further abuse against some of Rwandan society’s most vulnerable children,” said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Rwanda should not only take these recommendations seriously and take action immediately, but it should also close down the abusive transit centers.”
Under legislation introduced since 2017, people exhibiting “deviant acts or behaviors … such as prostitution, drug use, begging, vagrancy, [or] informal street vending,” can be held for up to two months in one of the 28 transit centers across the country, without any further legal justification or oversight. The committee said it was concerned that the existence of “deviant behaviors” in the legislation was leading to “the deprivation of liberty of children in need of protection.”
The committee called for an end to this abusive detention and for the government to change the law.
During the committee’s review, on January 27 and 28, the Rwandan government denied that the detention of street children in transit centers is arbitrary. The government also claimed that children in transit centers are either placed with a family or transferred to a “rehabilitation center” within 72 hours. These claims contradict reports by the National Commission for Children and the National Commission for Human Rights, as well as Human Rights Watch’s findings.
Between January and October 2019, Human Rights Watch conducted phone interviews with 30 formerly detained children aged 11 to 17. Only two said they had spent less than two weeks detained at the Kigali Transit Center, the center’s official name. Twenty-eight of the children said they were beaten at Gikondo. An 11-year-old boy who spent five months at Gikondo, from December 2018 to May 2019, told Human Rights Watch: “The only adult in the room was a ‘counsellor’ [an adult detainee] and he beat me with a club when I disturbed him, played, or tried to take some drinking water without his permission.”
In an article published by KT Press on January 27, 2020, Justice Minister Johnston Busingye was quoted saying: “These children have been redeemed…. We believe they can become useful citizens…. HRW [Human Rights Watch] can come and interview them if they wish.” During Rwanda’s review by the Committee on the Rights of the Child, the gender and family promotion minister, Soline Nyirahabimana, also said independent observers should visit the center.
On February 6, Human Rights Watch wrote a letter to Minister Busingye following up on these statements and requesting access to Gikondo and other transit centers in Rwanda. He has not responded.
Children at Gikondo are detained in overcrowded rooms, sometimes with adults, in conditions well below standards required by Rwandan and international law. Children said they had to share mattresses and blankets, which were often infected with lice, sometimes with up to four or five other children. Some said they were only allowed to wash once or twice a week or had irregular access to toilets. Access to medical treatment is sporadic and there is no rehabilitation support.
According to the government’s own figures, thousands of children may have been subjected to the kinds of abuses Human Rights Watch documented. In a statement on February 6, the government rejected the Human Rights Watch findings and said that 3,825 children had been “screened” at the Kigali Transit Center between 2017 and 2019.
The committee called for investigations into reported cases of ill-treatment and beatings of street children by police and transit center personnel, and for the prosecution of the alleged abusers.
“The Committee on the Rights of the Child has made clear its worries over Rwanda’s most vulnerable children and the government’s failure to put their wellbeing first,” Mudge said. “Instead of issuing blanket denials, the government should make much-needed reforms, end the abuse of street children, and hold those responsible for beatings and ill-treatment accountable.”