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Gikondo Transit Center, April 2015.  © 2015 Human Rights Watch.

The African Court on Human and People’s Rights has held that states’ laws enabling the detention of people who, often because of poverty, are forced to live on the street, violate human rights law.

On December 4, the regional human rights court delivered an opinion upholding the rights of people deemed “vagrants” by the state. The opinion, issued in response to a request by the Pan African Lawyers Union, concluded that laws permitting the forcible removal or warrantless arrest of a person declared to be a ‘vagrant’ violate the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and other human rights instruments.

Since 2006, Human Rights Watch has documented how street vendors, sex workers, homeless people, suspected petty criminals and street children have been arbitrarily detained in so-called ‘transit centers’ in Rwanda. The government argues that the practice is part of its rehabilitation strategy

While “vagrancy” and “begging” were dropped as criminal offences in Rwanda’s 2018 Penal Code, new legislation establishing a National Rehabilitation Service introduced the concept of “deviant behaviors,” which include “prostitution, drug use, begging, vagrancy, informal street vending, or any other deviant behavior that is harmful to the public.” These “behaviors” are effectively treated as criminal – those suspected of committing them are arbitrarily arrested and detained in transit or ‘rehabilitation’ centers.

In January, a Human Rights Watch report documented how Gikondo transit center in Kigali is operating as a de facto detention facility, where children – some as young as 11-years-old – are underfed, beaten, and detained for up to six months in overcrowded and unhygienic rooms, without ever being charged, or seeing a judge, a lawyer, or a guardian. In February, the UN’s Committee on the Rights of the Child called on Rwanda to stop detaining children in transit centers, to investigate allegations of ill-treatment, and to change the laws that regularize this abuse.

On December 14, Human Rights Watch wrote to Rwanda’s justice minister Johnston Busingye to seek information on steps taken by the Rwanda authorities to remedy the abusive legal framework governing its National Rehabilitation Service, and is awaiting a response.

Rwanda says it’s serious about tackling the issue of homelessness, but rounding people up for “vagrancy” or “begging” and treating them as criminals is not a solution. Rwandan authorities should take steps to implement the opinions of the UN committee and the African Court and ensure accountability for abuses committed in transit centers.

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