Civil society organizations have called upon African leaders and regional organizations to stop Tanzania from pressuring Burundi refugees and asylum seekers into going back to their country.
In a statement published on the Human Rights Watch website (HRW), the 18 human rights organizations said African Union (AU) representatives should ensure refugee returns are voluntary, the asylum space is open for all and that Tanzania desist from coercion against those refugees who want to stay in the country.
Tanzania currently hosts the largest number of refugees from Burundi. An estimated 200,000 people fled to the country after a new wave of violence began in 2015 when the incumbent Pierre Nkurunzinza announced his third term presidential bid. In 2005, Tanzania pledged to make the country refugee free by 2010. It even granted citizenship to thousands of refugees through naturalization process, a move that was lauded by many human rights organizations.
This year, the annual theme of AU is dubbed “The year of refugees and internally Displaced Person: Towards Durable Solution to Forced Displacement in Africa”. It aims to address the plight of refugees and displaced persons in Africa by providing them with secure and peaceful environment in host countries.
Reports have surfaced of Tanzanian authorities enforcing repatriation by allowing degradation of living conditions in camps. In Nyagusuru camp run by the Tanzanian Red Cross, for example, refugees have been banned from carrying out any business activities depriving them of their source of livelihood. Additionally, they are also prohibited from leaving camps. In 2012 the country revoked refugee status of those in Mtabila camp, eventually closing down the camp.
“The Tanzania Government has seriously restricted asylum space, freedom of movement and economic opportunities for Burundian refugees. Those who venture outside of the Nyarugusu, Nduta and Mtendeli camps to meet their daily needs have at times been arrested and detained by Tanzania security forces,” the civil societies statement read in part.
Burundi and Tanzania signed a bilateral agreement back in August 2019 that sought to send refugees home by the end of the year. In a televised interview, Tanzania President John Pombe Magufuli said all shelter seekers must “go home”. Following his remarks, camp authorities under the ministry of Home Affairs informed refugees that if they did not register to return home, they would be in the country illegally. Fearing arrest many registered for the repatriation program.
“The Tanzania authorities have intensified pressure on unregistered Burundian refugees to the point of coercion, violating their rights under international law. The country appears to be acting on its threat to drive out some 180,000 refugees who are at risk of serious harm in Burundi,” said Bill Frelick, refugee director at Human Rights Watch.
According to a research by HRW, many returnees are likely to be viewed as opposition supporters. They end up facing exclusion and abuses at the hands of the Imbonerakure militia group and the security personnel in an attempt to shift their political beliefs. On September 17, the Uited Nations (UN) reported that many returnees feel compelled to flee again because they feared for their safety.
Undeterred by the pressure, some refugees are still hell bent on remaining in Tanzania. “If they return us back to Burundi, we will die. We want to live in Tanzania. If Tanzania government does not want us here, then they should ask for another place or country for resettlement,” Salvato, a refugee told Voice of Africa ( VoA).
UN recently criticized Tanzania authorities for deliberately oppressing Burundian refugees. The agency has continued to insist that it will work with the Tanzania to ensure that the returns are safe. It should be noted that the 1951 UN refugee and 1969 African Refugee convention clearly prohibits return of refugees to places where their lives or freedom could be in threatened. The 1951 convection was ratified by 145 countries including Tanzania therefore the country is in clear violation of the core principles of the agreement.