Burundi refugees in Tanzania are currently living in fear. As a result, UN Human Rights Council is saying that
the rights of refugees and asylum seekers who have fled Burundi for Tanzania must be respected.
Experts appointed by the human rights council have already made an appeal to authorities in both countries.
Before now, a senior UN official had said in August 2018 those refugees should never be pressured to decide if they should return to their home countries.
Assistant High Commissioner for Protection with the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, Volker Türk said so after completing a four-day visit to Tanzania, which was then hosting more than 340,000 refugees and asylum-seekers.
“Refugees need to have a meaningful choice about whether they wish to return based on the facts and realities on the ground. There should not be any direct or indirect pressure exercised on refugees to choose whether to return”, he said.
The government of Tanzania assured the agency that the decision to return will be up to refugees themselves.
Türk met with the Tanzanian authorities and partners to discuss protection challenges and solutions for the refugees and asylum seekers who have found shelter in the country having fled conflict and persecution in their homelands.
The majority are from Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, with nearly 90 per cent living in three camps in the Kigoma region, located in the west.
The UN official also visited the Nduta Refugee Camp where he met with residents.
He also witnessed the voluntary return process for Burundian refugees. So far, more than 42,000 Burundians have returned home, according to UNHCR.
Türk also held a meeting with UNHCR representatives who are working in countries hosting Burundi refugees, who total around 400,000.
UNHCR said the Burundi situation was one of the world’s most underfunded humanitarian crises, with a $391 million appeal only 12 per cent funded.
Türk called on the international community to address what he called “this forgotten situation”.
However, Burundi refugees have suffered violations such as arbitrary arrests and enforced disappearances, allegedly carried out by the Tanzanian police and intelligence services in cooperation with counterparts in their homeland, they reported.
“In addition to the strict encampment policy imposed on them by the Government of Tanzania, Burundian refugees and asylum-seekers now live in fear of being abducted in the middle of the night by Tanzanian security forces and taken to an unknown location or being forcefully returned to Burundi”, the experts said in a statement.
Hundreds of thousands of people fled Burundi for neighbouring countries following deadly clashes surrounding the 2015 presidential election.
While the worst of the violence has eased, the situation remains fragile, according to the UN refugee agency, UNHCR.
Posing as refugees
Nearly half of those who escaped, or around 150,000 people, are in Tanzania. The rights experts report that Burundian political opponents have allegedly been tracked among refugees and asylum-seekers there.
Burundian intelligence agents, posing as refugees within the camps, are identifying specific individuals who are later arrested by Tanzanian security forces.
“The government of Burundi must stop its repression against its citizens including those seeking international protection in Tanzania”, they said.
Burundian refugees have confirmed being taken by Tanzanian police and subjected to enforced disappearance and torture, before being forced to return home or to sign up for “voluntary return”.
Some also were interrogated for their supposed affiliation with armed groups, or about their activities in the camps, and even asked for money in order to be released.
“We are extremely alarmed by reports that some Burundian refugees have been killed after having been abducted by Tanzanian security forces”, the experts said, adding that fear has driven many refugees to return home.
“It is extremely discouraging that since the Government announced in August 2020 that an investigation into the disappearances was underway no results have been made public yet”, the statement concluded.
“The Government of Tanzania is aware of the situation and must take all necessary measures to immediately stop and remedy the violations.”
The 12 experts who issued the statement are mandated by the UN Human Rights Council to monitor specific thematic issues, including enforced or voluntary disappearances, arbitrary detention, and torture or other degrading punishment.
They serve in their individual capacity and are neither UN staff, nor are they paid by the Organisation.