Thousands of Burundian refugees are under mounting pressure to return to their country where they would be at risk of death, rape and torture, said Amnesty International in a report out today.
Conform or flee: Repression and insecurity pushing Burundians into exile launches after two East African countries stopped automatically granting refugee status to Burundian asylum seekers. Tanzania stopped in January, and Uganda in June this year.
The Burundi government has been pressing refugees to return. On a visit to Tanzania in July – his first foreign visit since a coup against him failed two years ago – Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza called on the more than 240,000 refugees there to return home. His comments were echoed by President John Magufuli of Tanzania. Other senior Burundian officials have taken the same message to Uganda’s refugee settlements.
“While the Burundian government says all is well and urges refugees to return, more Burundians continue to flee the country due to repression and insecurity,” said Rachel Nicholson, Amnesty International’s Burundi researcher.
“Let’s be clear, Burundi has not yet returned to normality and the government’s attempts to deny the horrific abuses still taking place within the country should not be given credence.”
The report sheds light on the pervasive climate of fear in Burundi more than two years after the president’s decision to seek a third term ended in crisis.
The security forces and the Imbonerakure, the increasingly militarized youth wing of the ruling National Council for the Defence of Democracy – Forces for the Defence of Democracy (CNDD-FDD) party, continue to commit human rights violations against perceived government opponents, including killings, unlawful detentions, rape and torture.
Amnesty International researchers interviewed 129 Burundian refugees in Tanzania in June 2016 and Uganda in July 2017, including some who had just arrived in the camps at the time, about why they fled their country and why they did not feel ready to return.
The vast majority said they had left due to insecurity and repression at the hands of the Imbonerakure, the police, the intelligence agency (SNR) and the army.
The violations and abuses the refugees cited included killings, beatings, threats of sexual violence, torture in detention and extortion.
“Belonging to an opposition party, associating with opposition members, refusing to join to the ruling party or simply trying to leave the country is enough to create suspicion and the threat of arrest or worse,” said Rachel Nicholson.
“In these circumstances, it is imperative that Tanzania and Uganda continue to provide a safe haven for Burundian refugees in line with international law.”
One young man told Amnesty International, “If you are not CNDD-FDD, you are considered their enemy.”
Sixteen people told Amnesty International that they were tortured or ill-treated while in detention. One of them, a young man who was detained for a week in May this year in Kirundo Province, northern Burundi, said he was held in a tiny unlit room with three others, repeatedly beaten with batons, and made to eat his meals in the toilet next door.
“They tortured us to make us confess that we worked with the rebels. One day they tortured us in an atrocious way. They took a bottle filled with sand and hung it from our testicles,” he said.
One woman who told Amnesty International that she was raped by two Imbonerakure members in her home in the presence of her two children, said “I just wanted to escape the country. I knew I wasn’t safe.”
“Many refugees are still traumatized by the human rights violations and abuses they suffered or witnessed. Neighboring countries must continue to welcome them and protect them from harm. The international community must also step up and provide adequate funding to the seriously underfunded Burundi refugee response,” said Rachel Nicholson.
The report launches on the day the UN Human Rights Council is due to decide whether to renew the mandate of the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi. In a report earlier this month, the Commission said it had strong evidence that crimes against humanity had been committed in Burundi. Amnesty International has called on the UN Human Rights Council to renew the Commission’s mandate.
“The Burundi authorities would like the world to turn their attention away from the human rights violations and abuses being committed in the country. The Human Rights Council must refuse to allow this to happen,” said Rachel Nicholson
According to the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), more than 400,000 people have fled Burundi since the conflict began in April 2015. They are hosted primarily in Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Only 6% of the funding requested for the UNHCR’s Burundi Regional Refugee Response for 2017 has been received.
Within Burundi itself, more than 200,000 people (roughly 2% of the population) are internally displaced.