KAMPALA/BUJUMBURA/DAR EL SALAAM — A leaked, confidential document seen and reviewed by Amnesty International confirms fears that the repatriation of Burundian refugees from Tanzania will not be wholly voluntary and could start as soon as next week.
The bilateral agreement signed by Tanzania’s Minister for Home Affairs Kangi Lugola and Burundi’s Minister of Interior Pascal Barandagiye on 24 August states that the new planned returns process would begin in the “second week of September and be completed by 31 December 2019” and that “returns would continue with or without refugees’ consent”.
“It is extremely shocking that the Government of Tanzania is willing to send people against their will to a place the UN has deemed requires close monitoring as crimes against humanity and serious human rights violations continue unchecked,” said Seif Magango, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes.
“This accelerated timeline for returns is extremely alarming. That these two governments are in such a hurry to return people who fled Burundi because they felt their lives were at risk clearly demonstrates that their safety is not considered a priority.
“With serious human rights violations and acts of repression continuing, it is essential that asylum space remains open to Burundians who are still leaving the country, as well as those who fled previously,” Seif Magango said.
Nearly 75,000 people have already returned to Burundi from Tanzania since September 2017 under a voluntary repatriation programme facilitated by United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
But this new agreement shows that the two countries have thrown caution to the wind and will proceed with their plans even against the advice of UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
The agreement reads; “whether our partner UNHCR will show interest to play their role or wants to delay us, we, the two countries, will proceed with this exercise to ensure that these Burundians go to their home.”
Amnesty International has since raised a red flag — calling for the immediate shelving of this agreement.
“The governments of Tanzania and Burundi must immediately abandon their new plans to forcibly repatriate Burundi refugees,” said Seif Magango.
“All three parties must ensure that any returns undertaken are genuinely voluntary and conducted in safety and with dignity in line with international principles and standards.”
The Human rights body says Tanzanian authorities must further publicly reassure Burundian refugees and asylum-seekers that they will continue receiving protection in Tanzania, without pressure to return.
In January 2017, the Tanzanian authorities ended prima facie recognition of refugees from Burundi, meaning that all asylum seekers coming from Burundi were from then on individually assessed.
By July 2018, the Government of Tanzania had closed all reception centres at border entry points from Burundi – both restricting access to the country and the possibility of claiming asylum.
The government has further temporarily closed the refugees’ common markets and some refugee-run businesses in the camps putting great pressure on the Burundian refugee community to leave the country.
Uganda recently asked refugees from Rwanda and Burundi to return home.
Minister of Disaster Preparedness and Refugees, Mr Hilary Onek, cited the three countries including South Sudan saying they are now stable.
Mr Onek also complained that some of the refugees, instead of reciprocating the hospitality afforded by the government and Ugandan hosts, had turned into enemies.
However, an ongoing political crisis in Burundi is being ignored by an international community distracted by other problems around the world, according to a UNHCR
Over 350,000 refugees have fled the central African country after Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza sought a third term in 2015, bringing thousands of protesters to the streets.
The street protests led to violent clashes with the security forces, and Nkurunziza was re-elected.
In 2018, the president organized a referendum changing the constitution so that he could stay in power until 2034.
Refugees have fled to Tanzania, Uganda, Congo, and Rwanda, which is the location of the Mahama refugee camp where Caritas Rwanda helps over 60,000 Burundians.
The UN refugee agency says the Burundian refugee situation is the lowest funded of any situation globally, saying that last year it had received just 33 percent of the $391 million requested to support Burundian refugees.