Burundian refugees queue to receive handout clothes from UNHCR at a refugee camp in Gashora, 55 kilometers south of Kigali, the capital of Rwanda on May 18, 2015 | Photo: EPA/Dai Kurokawa
Burundian refugees queue to receive handout clothes from UNHCR at a refugee camp in Gashora, 55 kilometers south of Kigali, the capital of Rwanda on May 18, 2015 | Photo: EPA/Dai Kurokawa

The organisation Human Rights Watch denounced that authorities in Tanzania have threatened and forced many of the 163,000 Burundian refugees and asylum seekers in the country to leave.

The fear of violence, arrest, and deportation is driving many of the 163,000 Burundian refugees and asylum seekers in Tanzania out of the country, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in an online statement from December 12.

It claims that Tanzanian authorities have also made it very difficult for United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) to properly check whether the recent decision by hundreds of refugees to return to Burundi was voluntary.

Denouncing threats and forced returns

"In October and November 2019, Tanzanian officials specifically targeted parts of the Burundian refugee population whose insecure legal status and lack of access to aid make them particularly vulnerable to coerced return to Burundi," HRW said, adding that the actions came after Tanzanian president John Magufuli said on October 11 that Burundian refugees should "go home."

Bill Frelick, refugee rights director at Human Rights Watch, said, "Refugees say police abuses, insecurity in Tanzania's refugee camps, and deportation threats drove them out of the country. Tanzania should reverse course before it ends up unlawfully coercing thousands more to leave."
In mid-November, HRW interviewed 20 Burundian refugees in Uganda who described the pressure that caused them to leave Tanzania between August 2018 and October 2019.

The refugees said their reasons for leaving Tanzania included fear of getting caught up in a spate of arrests, alleged disappearances and killings in or near refugee camps, and fear of abusive Burundian refugees working with Tanzanian police on camp security.

On December 3, Tanzanian Home Affairs Minister Kangi Lugola denied that the government is "expelling" refugees. He also said that the Tanzanian and Burundian authorities "merely mobilize, to encourage those who are ready to return on their own accord, to go back."

HRW's requests 

HRW said Tanzanian authorities should ensure that UNHCR staff are able to "properly verify the voluntary nature of refugees' decision to return to Burundi."

The human rights organization further said that the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights and the African Union should pay the refugee camps a visit and call on Tanzania not to "directly or indirectly forcibly return asylum seekers or refugees."

"The African Union should publicly press the Tanzanian authorities to stop trying to bully refugees and the UN into submission," HRW's aforementioned refugee rights director Frelick said. "Tanzania claims it isn't doing anything wrong, but Burundian refugees are telling us in clear terms that they are being driven out of the country".
 

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