Tanzania: Asylum seekers forced to return to Burundi

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Tanzanian authorities illegally forced more than 200 unregistered asylum seekers to return to Burundi on 15 October 2019, threatening to withdraw their legal status in Tanzania, Human Rights Watch said today. The United Nations Refugee Agency ( UNHCR ) facilitated these returns by registering asylum seekers in its voluntary repatriation program, while Tanzanian authorities told them they could be arrested if they remained in Tanzania.

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Forced returns follow an August 24th agreement between Tanzania and Burundi, which provides that about 180,000 Burundian refugees in Tanzania “must return to their country of origin voluntarily or not” by December 31st. On October 11, Tanzanian President John Magufuli said Burundian refugees should “go home . ” The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights should put pressure on Tanzania not to forcibly return asylum seekers or refugees, and UNHCR should not facilitate these returns.

“The Tanzanian authorities have intensified the pressure on unregistered Burundian refugees to the point of coercion, violating their rights under international law,” said Bill Frelick , director of the Refugee Rights Division at Human Rights Watch. “Tanzania appears to be implementing its threat to hunt nearly 180,000 refugees who face a risk of serious harm in Burundi. ”

In March 2018 , Tanzania and Burundi agreed to repatriate 2,000 Burundians per week as part of a 2017 tripartite agreement with UNHCR to facilitate the voluntary repatriation of Burundian refugees. However, the actual number is much lower, with only 76,000 returns between September 2017 and September 2019 , an average of 730 per week.

Between July and September, UNHCR and the Tanzanian authorities conducted a “validation exercise” to verify the number of registered and unregistered Burundians living in camps in Tanzania. Two sources told Human Rights Watch separately that many unregistered Burundians have encountered difficulties in registering. Although the authorities have not yet released the results of the exercise, nearly 3,000 unregistered Burundians have been identified, said one source.

On October 11, 2019, camp authorities, who are under the Tanzanian Ministry of Internal Affairs, informed hundreds of unregistered Burundians living in at least one of the three camps – Nduta, Nyarugusu and Mtendeli – in the Kigoma area of ​​the country. northwestern Tanzania near the border with Burundi, that if they did not register to return home, they would remain in camps without legal status and could be arrested, the source said. People without legal status would receive food aid, but no other support. Many registered immediately.

The forced return of more than 200 people on 15 October took place in a context of increasing pressure on all refugees living in the camps to return to Burundi, Human Rights Watch said. Since August, the Tanzanian authorities have made threatening public statements , closed down a market and repeatedly changed the administrative requirements for aid organizations operating in the camps. A recent agreement between Burundian and Tanzanian police to allow cross-border operations by the two police forces has heightened fears of arrest among refugees, according to a local media report.

Both sources said that on October 12, between 200 and 300 unregistered Burundians made contact with UNHCR representatives in Nduta camp to register for voluntary repatriation. Representatives of UNHCR have only asked people if they wanted to return, but did not ask any of the other usual questions, including why they decided to go, said one source. On October 15, they were among the 812 Burundians whose repatriation was facilitated by the International Organization for Migration ( IOM ).

In its response to Human Rights Watch’s October 23 findings, UNHCR acknowledged that “refugees were added to the October 15 convoy as a result of government mobilization efforts,” but that it “disagreed with the suggestion that all [refugees] had been forced “.

The UNHCR challenged the Human Rights Watch claim that representatives of the UNHCR did not ask Burundians registering for a return more questions to determine if their decision was truly voluntary. “When they explained their decision to return,” UNHCR said , “the refugees spoke of various push and pull factors as they compared the difficult environments known in Burundi and Tanzania,” he said. and she added that “no refugee has reported being forced to return to Burundi”.

According to UNHCR guidelines , refugees and asylum seekers do not need to explicitly state that they have been forced to return for UNHCR to conclude that their repatriation is involuntary, Human Rights Watch said. . The UNHCR should fully take into account the fact that more than 200 asylum seekers were asked to return to Burundi the day after the camp authorities threatened them with arrest if they did not “voluntarily returned”. However, it does not appear that UNHCR has taken such precautions.

The UNHCR has recognized “the growing pressure imposed refugees and [his] staff to increase the number of people returning every week,” but added that it “will continue to work with the government of Tanzania to encourage compliance with the principles voluntary nature in accordance with the Tripartite Agreement “.

The actions of the Tanzanian government have worsened a situation that was already deteriorating in the camps, which is likely to force more and more refugees to return to Burundi, Human Rights Watch said. This includes cuts in food rations between August 2017 and October 2018, a ban on refugees leaving the camps including seeking work or timber, and violence against some refugees who have left the camps, as well as that widespread insecurity . The Imbonerakure – the youth league of the ruling Burundian party – who have a heavy record of widespread human rights abuses , reportedly harassed and threatened the refugees in the camps.

Human Rights Watch has expressed concern that the Tanzanian authorities’ successful coercion of more than 200 unregistered Burundians on October 15 could prompt authorities to target more people.

“Tanzania’s intimidation of unregistered Burundians in the camps appears to be only the first step in targeting the most vulnerable people in the camps,” said Bill Frelick. “All international agencies, including UNHCR , should play a stronger role in protecting and assisting all Burundians seeking refuge in Tanzania. ”

Repatriation of October 15

On 16 October, the International Organization for Migration ( IOM ) told aid agencies in Tanzania that it had transported 812 Burundian refugees by convoy from Nduta camp in Tanzania to Nyabitare in Burundi the day before.

Two knowledgeable sources explained that this number included the majority or all of a group of 251 refugees living in Nduta camp who registered for a voluntary return by 10 October. Some or all of the 287 refugees living in the two neighboring Burundian refugee camps, who were transferred to Nduta camp on 13 October, were most likely included in this convoy as well.

The difference between the 538 refugees who registered for voluntary return under the normal procedure in all three camps, most or all of whom returned on 15 October, and the total number of 812 refugees returned to Burundi that day suggests that the convoy included more than 200 Burundians forced to leave Tanzania by the Nduta camp authorities a few days earlier. Both sources corroborated this, explaining that the group of 812 refugees included up to 300 Burundians living in the Nduta camp who had registered after the October 11 meeting with the Tanzanian authorities.

Situation in Burundi

In its latest report , the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi Council of Human Rights of the UN concluded that “the persistence […] of serious violations of human rights – some of which constitute crimes against humanity “in the country. The targets, according to the report, were real and perceived opposition supporters, Burundians who had returned from abroad and human rights defenders. Although President Pierre Nkurunziza has indicated that he will not stand for re-election, the committee has particularly drawn attention to the “major risk” posed by the 2020 election.

In June, Human Rights Watch documented serious patterns of abuse , including arbitrary arrests, beatings, enforced disappearances and killings, mostly committed by members of Imbonerakure and local authorities against alleged members. of the opposition party National Congress for Freedom.

The UNHCR said in August that the conditions in Burundi are not sufficiently safe or stable to encourage refugees to return to their country and that only facilitate voluntary return.

UNHCR Legal Standards and Guidelines on Voluntary Repatriation

The 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1969 Refugee Convention in Africa prohibit refoulement , that is, the return of refugees in any way to places where their life or liberty would be. threatened. The UNHCR indicates that the discharge occurs not only when a government reject or expel a refugee directly but also when indirect pressure is so strong that it leads people to think they have no choice but to return to a country where they face a risk of serious harm.

The Handbook on Voluntary Repatriation (Manual on voluntary repatriation, in English) of UNHCR provides that “registration for repatriation should not be considered as a purely administrative task” and that staff received “extensive training” should “Interview … potential repatriation candidates to obtain relevant information, advise them on areas of concern, respond to questions about repatriation issues [and] assess vulnerability”.

The manual of the UNHCR also states that ‘the registration for voluntary repatriation should not be directly related to any registration or verification (such as care and support programs), “that” the combination of the two can create a confusion for refugees by giving the impression that they have to register for voluntary repatriation in order to be entitled to help in the country of asylum “and that” this may seriously compromise the voluntary nature “.

XAYEYSIIN

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