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Tanzania: Burundian Refugees ‘Disappeared,’ Tortured

Halt Forced Returns; Investigate Police, Intelligence Services

(Nairobi) – Tanzanian authorities have gravely abused at least 18 Burundian refugees and asylum seekers since late 2019. The whereabouts of several who were forcibly disappeared remain unknown, and additional Burundians may have suffered similar abuse. 

Burundian President Évariste Ndayishimiye (left) and Tanzanian President John Magufuli meet in Kigoma, in northwestern Tanzania, on September 19, 2020. It was Ndayishimiye’s first foreign visit since his election in May 2020. © 2020 SOS Médias Burundi

Between October 2019 and August 2020, Tanzanian police and intelligence services forcibly disappeared, tortured, and arbitrarily detained at least 11 Burundians for up to several weeks in abysmal conditions in a police station in Kibondo, Kigoma region. Three were released in Tanzania, and Tanzanian authorities forcibly returned the other eight to Burundi in August, where they have been detained without charge. Tanzanian police have arrested and forcibly disappeared seven other refugees and asylum seekers since January 2020. The arrests occurred in Mtendeli and Nduta refugee camps in Kigoma region, near the border with Burundi.

“Tanzanian authorities’ enforced disappearances of Burundian refugees and asylum seekers in Tanzania are heinous crimes, not least because of the anguish and suffering caused to family members, many of whom fled similar abuses in Burundi,” said Mausi Segun, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The Tanzanian government should urgently and impartially investigate allegations that Burundians have been abducted, tortured, and illegally handed over to Burundian authorities, and ensure that those responsible are held to account.”

More than 150,000 Burundian refugees live in camps in Tanzania, many of whom fled violence in Burundi after then-president Pierre Nkurunziza’s decision to run for a disputed third term in 2015. The Tanzanian government has been pressing the refugees to return to Burundi.

Map of the border area between Burundi and Tanzania. © 2020 John Emerson for Human Rights Watch

Between August and November 2020, Human Rights Watch conducted phone interviews with 23 victims of abuses, witnesses, and victims’ family members. Seven other sources working in the camps who did not wish to be identified corroborated the accounts of victims and family members.

All the cases documented indicate that Tanzanian authorities were involved in the enforced disappearances. Nine of the victims said they were held incommunicado for up to several weeks at Kibondo police station and that their families were not informed of their whereabouts. Tanzanian intelligence agents or police interrogated detainees about alleged affiliation with armed groups and possession of weapons, their activities in the camp, and in some cases asked for money to release them.

The Burundians said that Tanzanian police detained them in rooms with no electricity or windows, took them to a separate building on the police station grounds, and hanged them from the ceiling by their handcuffs. Some said that police and intelligence agents gave them electric shocks, rubbed their faces and genitals with chili, and beat and whipped them. In some cases, police and intelligence officers told them they had received information from Burundian authorities about them, suggesting collusion between agents from the two countries.

A Burundian refugee who spent 23 days at Kibondo police station in July described being hung from the ceiling by his handcuffs: “We screamed as if we were being crucified…. They said they wanted one million [Tanzanian] shillings [US$430].” When he said he was unable to pay, the police accused him of discouraging refugees from returning to Burundi and of trying to destabilize Burundi. “They used bike spokes to pierce our genitals and rubbed chili on them,” he said. “We ate once every three days … they said they were going to kill us.”

When told he could remain in detention in Tanzania or be transferred to Burundian authorities, he pleaded with them to let him return to Burundi. He and seven other Burundians who were returned in August have been detained since then in Muramvya and Bubanza prisons in Burundi. They said Burundian national intelligence agents briefly presented them before a judicial official in August, without any lawyers present, who repeated the Tanzanian authorities’ accusations of attempting to destabilize Burundi before ordering their transfer to prison. None of the detainees have seen a judge or been formally charged since.

In the cases of the seven other refugees and asylum seekers arrested by the police, family members said they had received no response from police officers in the camps when they asked where their loved ones were. Some of them have also contacted the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR).

In response to Human Rights Watch’s request for information on these allegations, UNHCR said it was deeply concerned over reports of disappearances of refugees in Tanzania and had repeatedly expressed these concerns with the Tanzanian authorities both orally and in writing, requesting a full investigation and providing a written report to the government. UNHCR wrote: “After multiple inquiries, the government informed UNHCR in August that a high-level investigation was underway. We have not been informed of any results regarding this investigation. We continue to raise this issue with the government as a matter of urgency.” UNHCR concluded: “The physical security of refugees is the responsibility of the country hosting them and to that end UNHCR calls for the Tanzanian authorities to take all the necessary measures to ensure the security of Burundian refugees, in line with their international obligations.”

Human Rights Watch sent letters on October 26 providing information about the documented cases and queries about investigations to Tanzania’s director of public prosecutions, director of refugee services at the Ministry of Home Affairs, and inspector general of police. On November 18, Human Rights Watch wrote to the Burundian foreign affairs and justice ministers to request information on the eight Burundians who are currently detained in Muramvya and Bubanza prisons. Human Rights Watch has not received any responses.

Tanzania’s transfer of detained Burundian refugees and asylum seekers to Burundi without basic due process violates the international legal prohibition against refoulement, the forcible return of anyone to a place where they would face a real risk of persecution, torture, or other ill-treatment, or a threat to their life.

In Burundi, serious human rights violations against real or perceived opposition supporters, including returning refugees, put them at risk, Human Rights Watch said. A UN Human Rights Council-mandated Commission of Inquiry reported in September that serious human rights violations have persisted in Burundi since 2019. The commission found that some returnees continued to face hostility from local officials and the ruling party’s youth wing, the Imbonerakure, and that “[r]eturnees have sometimes been victims of serious violations that have forced them to go back into exile.”

“We are concerned that the Burundians who have been disappeared face a fate like those already unlawfully returned to Burundi, or worse,” Segun said. “Tanzanian authorities should make every effort to locate these people, notify their families, and provide them with the basic rights due to refugees the world over.”

Burundian Refugees in Tanzania

Tanzania has hosted hundreds of thousands of refugees over the past few decades and offered citizenship to tens of thousands who had been in the country since 1972. However, the country also has a troubling history of forced returns and in 2017 revoked prima facie status – which had recognized refugee status based simply on nationality – for Burundian refugees. Since 2018, many Burundian asylum seekers have encountered obstacles to registration.

As of October 31, 2020, over 150,000 Burundian refugees were in three camps – Nduta, Nyarugusu, and Mtendeli – in Tanzania’s Kigoma region near the Burundi border. Many fled Burundi after then-president Pierre Nkurunziza’s decision to run for a disputed third term in 2015 triggered a widespread human rights crisis.

Between September 2017 and September 2020, almost 100,000 Burundians returned from Tanzania to Burundi under an agreement among Burundi, Tanzania, and the UNHCR, which is to conduct detailed interviews with refugees to ensure they are leaving Tanzania voluntarily. UNHCR has reiterated since 2019, and most recently in September 2020, that it “does not promote returns to Burundi” but will continue to facilitate “informed voluntary” repatriations. It has noted that “Tanzania plans to facilitate the repatriation of 20,000 Burundian refugees between September and December 2020.”

In March 2018, Tanzania and Burundi agreed to repatriate 2,000 Burundians a week, and an August 2019 agreement between Tanzania and Burundi announced that all the refugees were “to return to their country of origin whether voluntarily or not” by December 31 of that year.

A Human Rights Watch report in December 2019 found that the fear of violence, arbitrary arrest, and deportation was driving many Burundian refugees and asylum seekers in Tanzania out of the country. Tanzanian officials specifically targeted parts of the Burundian refugee population whose insecure legal status and lack of access to aid made them particularly vulnerable to coerced return to Burundi. Human Rights Watch concluded that Tanzanian authorities made it difficult for UNHCR to properly check whether the decisions of hundreds of refugees to return to Burundi was voluntary.

On December 3, the Tanzanian home affairs minister, Kangi Lugola, denied that the government was “expelling” refugees, and said the Tanzanian and Burundian authorities “merely mobilize, to encourage those who are ready to return on their own accord, to go back.”

Burundian authorities repeatedly spoke of the need for refugees to return from exile prior to and after the May 2020 elections. In a speech during his swearing-in ceremony, President Évariste Ndayishimiye said: “We call on all Burundians who wish to return to their nation to come back.” Yet in the same speech, he also threatened countries that support “Burundians who indulge in sabotage,” most likely referring to refugees who fled the country due to their political or human rights activism. Ndayishimiye’s first foreign visit as president took place near the Burundian border in Kigoma, Tanzania, in September.

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. The prohibition on forced return also applies to asylum seekers not yet formally recognized as refugees.

In view of the sensitivity around the status of Burundian refugees in Tanzania, Human Rights Watch has withheld identifying information for fear of reprisals against victims and their relatives.

Arrests, Enforced Disappearances in the Camps

Most of the enforced disappearances Human Rights Watch documented followed a similar pattern. Police arrive at the victim’s house between midnight and 3 a.m., saying in Swahili: “Musihofu, musihofu, sisi ni polisi” (“Don’t be afraid, we are police”). Many said the men were dressed in green Tanzanian police uniforms but did not present an arrest warrant. Two victims of disappearances and two family members of victims identified police commanders from Nduta and Mtendeli camps as taking part in the operation.

Nduta camp in Tanzania currently houses 70,109 Burundian refugees and asylum seekers. About 154,000 Burundians live in three camps – Nduta, Nyarugusu, and Mtendeli – in Tanzania’s northwestern Kigoma region, where some have faced arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, and torture. © 2020 SOS Médias Burundi

The wife of a 42-year-old refugee living in Nduta camp said that her husband was arrested in February 2020:

They came and broke down the door. When they entered the house, they said, “We are the police” and asked for our telephone…. I begged them to let my husband get dressed as they handcuffed him…. In the morning, we went to see the police that guards the camp. They told us that no police came into the camp last night. It’s as if all the security forces are working together.

Her neighbor confirmed the account.

Another refugee’s wife, whose husband was arrested in July in Mtendeli camp, said that she heard voices of men near her house at around 2 a.m.: “They broke down the window to our bedroom and flashed a flashlight in our faces. They spoke in Swahili and said, ‘We are the police, don’t be afraid, open the door.’” After her husband opened the door, she said, “They asked for our phones and handcuffed my husband. They were policemen dressed in green uniforms; one of them had a gun. I recognized one of them – he was among the policemen that protect the camp.”

When she asked the camp’s police about her husband’s whereabouts the next day, she found five other women there in the same situation: “When we asked them where our husbands were, they said they were not there and that they did not know anything…. To this day, I haven’t seen him again.”

Six family members who inquired about their loved ones’ whereabouts said police denied they had the victims in custody. None of the family members of the seven currently missing refugees and asylum seekers have been able to locate them.

In one case, a victim’s wife said she was threatened for asking about her husband: “After several attempts, I went again to Nduta camp’s police … but this time they said: ‘If you keep bothering us with your husband’s situation, we’ll take to you where he is.’ Since that day, I haven’t asked about him, because I don’t know if they killed him and will kill me, too.”

Under international law, an enforced disappearance occurs when state agents, or people or groups acting with government authorization, support, or acquiescence, deprive a person of liberty and then refuse to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or conceal the person’s fate or whereabouts.

An enforced disappearance continues as long as the disappeared person remains missing, and information about their fate or whereabouts has not been provided. It also has multiple victims. Those close to a disappeared person suffer anguish from not knowing what happened to them, which amounts to inhuman and degrading treatment.

They may also be further treated in an inhuman and degrading manner by authorities who fail to investigate or provide information on the person’s whereabouts or fate. These aspects make enforced disappearances a particularly pernicious violation, and highlight the seriousness with which the authorities should take their obligations to prevent and remedy the crime.

The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which Tanzania ratified in 1984, prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention, torture and other ill-treatment, and other abuses that make up enforced disappearance. Tanzania is among the few countries that has not ratified the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (“Convention against Torture”).

Tanzania has also not ratified the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance. However, the absolute prohibition on torture and enforced disappearance are part of customary international law and are included as crimes in the Statute of the International Criminal Court. Under international law, torture and enforced disappearance are crimes subject to universal jurisdiction, meaning any country may prosecute them irrespective of where the crimes took place or the nationality of those responsible or the victim.

Abuses at Kibondo Police Station

Human Rights Watch interviewed nine Burundians who had been forcibly disappeared and who said that they had been taken to Kibondo police station, approximately 11 kilometers from Nduta camp and 25 kilometers from Mtendeli camp.

Satellite image of Kibondo police station, in northwestern Tanzania. © 2020 CNES/Airbus. Source: Google Earth

They said they were detained for up to several weeks between October 2019 and August 2020. Some were initially held at their camp’s police post, and all described passing through Kibondo police station, where they were held in a dark, windowless room. The interrogations took place in a separate building on the same compound.

One Burundian said:

When we arrived at the police station that night, we were put in a small room [that] didn’t have windows or electricity. There was no water or toilets. We just had a bucket. We rarely ate, and we were tortured. They beat us in another house [on the compound] nearby. They passed a rope between our handcuffed hands and suspended us. I don’t know how much time I spent up there. The pain was beyond what I could bear.

“In this house, there are sticks from which people are suspended,” said a 32-year-old Burundian detained at the police station from October to November 2019. “They also use electric shocks as a torture method in this house.” Police and intelligence agents accused him of carrying weapons and attempting to destabilize the Burundi government:

I denied these accusations, so they told me to take off all my clothes. They handcuffed my feet to my hands and suspended me, and then whipped me using the inner tube [of a bicycle]. I was beaten with sticks.... They hit me wherever they wanted, all over my body.... I screamed in vain, they had no pity…. since I didn’t tell them what they wanted to hear, they hung me up over and over again… I was suffering so much I begged them to kill me – I don’t know how long they beat me.

One Burundian, who was arrested by the camp’s police officers and taken to Kibondo police station in November 2019 for two weeks, said policemen accused him of having weapons and tortured him repeatedly:

They dipped a stick with cotton wool at the end in a glass full of chili and inserted it into my anus. When I still denied having weapons, they poured chili all over my eyes and my body…. I continued to say I didn’t have weapons, so they connected two electric cables to my chest. It was excruciating.

Another person, who was released after two weeks at Kibondo police station in March 2020, said:

During this whole period, I was given food twice. The other Tanzanian detainees gave us a little bit of food that they got from their family. I saw another refugee called “Gervais” [a pseudonym]. He told me he had been detained there for four days without food. He told me his wife’s name, and when I was released, I informed her that I had seen him. He was often severely beaten, naked. He was bleeding all over his body. One day he was removed from the cell and I never saw him again.

Human Rights Watch confirmed the account with Gervais’ wife, who said policemen took her husband away at 3 a.m. on March 12 in Nduta camp. She said she reported his disappearance to the camp’s police, who told her no policemen had come into the camp that night: “They said they would do an investigation, but I never heard anything from them again.”

Collaboration Between Burundian and Tanzanian Authorities

Eight Burundian refugees and asylum seekers were arrested in Nduta and Mtendeli camps between late July and early August and detained incommunicado for up to several weeks at Kibondo police station, then handed over to Burundian intelligence officers at the border in August. Six of them said Tanzanian national intelligence and police abused them and asked for one million Tanzanian shillings ($430) to free them. Unable to pay, the men said they were given the choice of returning to Burundi or dying in detention.

A Burundian said that after being held 23 days at Kibondo police station:

[T]hey put us in a car, hands tied and faces covered, and took eight of us to the border, where [Burundian] security agents were waiting for us. We had not seen a judge yet…. At the border, we heard one Tanzanian police officer say to the Burundians, “Keep this a secret; let’s leave quickly so that Immigration doesn’t find us here.” …

After 30 minutes in the car [with the Burundians], we were screaming in pain because the ropes tying our hands together were hurting us. They removed them, but kept our eyes covered. We spent eight days at the national intelligence service’s office in Bujumbura, where we were interrogated. They made us sign a paper and promised us we would be freed, but instead they sent us all to prison.

Out of the group of eight who were forcibly returned to Burundi in violation of the international legal prohibition against refoulement, four are in Bubanza prison and four in Muramvya prison.

Two other Burundians who were detained at Kibondo police station also said that during interrogations, Tanzanian intelligence agents told them that Burundian intelligence had passed on information about them. One person who was later released in Tanzania, said that he was interrogated about his former military service in Burundi:

They already knew I was from the military, even though I hadn’t told them…. I said I didn’t have weapons, but they said that they will kill me, and if they don’t, they will take me to Burundi…. When they released me, they said that if the government of Burundi needs me, they will come find me.


The Tanzanian government should:

  • Immediately release or bring before a judge anyone who has been forcibly disappeared and ensure that any further detention strictly complies with international human rights law;
  • Ensure that the authorities reply promptly to any outstanding inquiries from families of people who have disappeared or are missing, providing all known information on their whereabouts or fate and on steps being taken to acquire such information if not readily available;
  • Direct regional and national authorities to investigate all reported enforced disappearances, to make their findings public, and to appropriately prosecute anyone involved in enforced disappearances;
  • Issue a written directive instructing all relevant government officials and state security forces to immediately cease all abuses against registered or undocumented Burundians, including arbitrary detention, enforced disappearances, torture, extortion, and refoulement to Burundi;
  • Ratify the core international human rights treaties, notably the Convention against Torture, and the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance;
  • Inform UNHCR immediately of the arrest and detention of any Burundian refugees and asylum seekers and the reasons for their arrest, and allow UNHCR access to all refugees and asylum seekers prior to initiating any expulsion or return proceedings, to properly verify that their decision to return to Burundi is voluntary.

The Burundian government should:

  • Immediately release or bring before a judge all refugees and asylum seekers detained after being transferred to Burundi and ensure that any further detention strictly complies with international human rights law. No one should be detained unless charged with a criminal offense, pretrial custody is necessary, and other due process and fair trial rights are respected;
  • Investigate and hold to account intelligence agents responsible for the illegal transfer and arbitrary detention of Burundian refugees and asylum seekers;
  • Cease any cooperation with Tanzania in the unlawful return of Burundian refugees and asylum seekers, and protect those who choose to voluntarily return from any retaliation.

UNHCR should publicly state that Tanzania’s forced return of the Burundian refugees and asylum seekers in the documented cases constitutes refoulement, in violation of the Refugee Convention, and it should urge the Tanzanian authorities to cease all forced or coerced returns.

The East African Community, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and the African Union should publicly urge Tanzania to investigate reports of enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests, and torture, and not directly or indirectly forcibly return asylum seekers or refugees.

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