Many of the 163,000 Burundian refugees and asylum seekers in Tanzania have been driven out of the country because of fear of violence, arrest, and deportation by the Tanzanian authorities.
Tanzanian authorities have also made it very difficult for the United Nations refugee agency to properly check whether hundreds of refugees’ recent decision to return to Burundi was voluntary.
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.
The actions come after the Tanzanian president, John Magufuli, said on October 11 that Burundian refugees should “go home”.
“Refugees say police abuses, insecurity in Tanzania’s refugee camps, and deportation threats drove them out of the country,” said Bill Frelick, refugee rights director at Human Rights Watch. “Tanzania should reverse course before it ends up unlawfully coercing thousands more to leave.”
In mid-November, Human Rights Watch interviewed 20 Burundian refugees in Uganda who described the pressure that caused them to leave Tanzania between August 2018 and October 2019.
Refugees said their reasons for leaving Tanzania include fear of getting caught up in a spate of arrests, and alleged disappearances and killings in or near refugee camps and fear of suspected members of the Imbonerakure and of abusive Burundian refugees working with Tanzanian police on camp security.
They also cited the government’s threats to deport Burundian refugees, the closing and destruction of markets, restrictions on commercial activities, and lack of access to services in the camps and freedom of movement.
On December 03, Tanzanian Home Affairs Minister Kangi Lugola denied that the government is “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.”
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said in August that conditions in Burundi were not safe or stable enough for it to encourage refugees to return, and that it would only facilitate voluntary returns.
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.
UNHCR’s mandate requires it to ask refugees signing up for voluntary return about the reasons behind the decision to ensure the decision is truly voluntary.
Human Rights Watch previously reported on the coerced return of hundreds of Burundian asylum seekers on October 15, after camp authorities said that if they did not register to return, they would be in the camps without legal status and aid.
In late October, UNHCR said Tanzania was increasing “pressure on Burundian refugees and asylum-seekers to return home.”
In the second week of November, Tanzanian authorities banned 10 UNHCR staff involved in managing the refugee registration database from the camp.
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. But the country also has a troubling history of forced return.
After the forced return of hundreds of thousands of Rwandans in 1996, Tanzania began in 2006 to reduce the number of what it termed “illegal immigrants” by violently expelling thousands of registered Rwandan and Burundian refugees. (Source: HRW)