Burundian refugees in Tanzania face increasing danger

Évariste Ndayishimiye’s first foreign visit as the president of Burundi was nothing if not symbolic. He chose Kigoma, a town in northwestern Tanzania near which about 154 000 Burundian nationals continue to seek protection from the previous administration’s abuses. Many Burundians in the area probably eyed the visit, during which Ndayishimiye and Tanzanian President John Magufuli agreed to strengthen relations, as a sign that the dangers they face in Tanzania could increase. 

These dangers are all too real. Since October 2019, Human Rights Watch has documented how Tanzanian police and intelligence agents, in some cases collaborating with Burundian authorities, arbitrarily arrested, forcibly disappeared, tortured, and extorted Burundian refugees and asylum seekers, and forcibly returned at least eight to Burundi.

Most cases followed a similar pattern: Tanzanian police entered refugee camps in Kigoma region in the middle of the night and took people away. In some cases, Burundians disappeared without a trace. 

The abuse is not only shocking in its brutality: it exposes that Tanzanian police and intelligence are working with Burundian authorities to target people the Tanzanian government is bound by international law to protect.

The most egregious case was of a group of eight Burundian refugees and asylum seekers, who were detained at a Tanzanian police station in Kibondo for several weeks in July 2020. There, Tanzanian police and intelligence officers held them in abysmal conditions, allegedly torturing them and attempting to extort them, before handing them over to Burundian intelligence.

“They used bike spokes to pierce our genitals, and rubbed chili on them,” a 35-year-old Burundian told us. “They said they were going to kill us.” When given the “choice” between remaining in detention in Tanzania or being handed over to Burundian authorities, he said he begged to return to Burundi. 

After the group’s forced return, Burundian authorities took them to Muramvya and Bubanza prisons where they remain at the time of writing. Their family members at least know where they are. In other cases, Burundians who went missing from the refugee camps in similar circumstances have vanished.

Some who were tortured at the Kibondo police station said that Tanzanian police and intelligence officers told them that Burundian authorities had passed on information about them. One man said that the Tanzanian intelligence agents knew all about his past. “I feel like I’ve already died, I have nothing to lose,” he said. “They said that if the government of Burundi needs me, they will come find me.”

Tanzania and Burundi have historically had a close relationship — former Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere led the peace negotiations that led to the 2000 Arusha Accords, which established ethnic power-sharing and helped end years of conflict in Burundi that left an estimated 300 000 dead. But a protracted crisis in Burundi since 2015 has sent hundreds of thousands of Burundians fleeing to Tanzania. Now pressure has been mounting on them to return home.

Between 2017 and 2020, almost 100 000 Burundians left Tanzania under a tripartite agreement among Burundi, Tanzania, and the United Nations refugee agency. In August 2019, Tanzania and Burundi signed a separate agreement, saying all refugees were to return to their country of origin “whether voluntarily or not” by the end of that year. In December 2019, we found that the fear of violence, arrest and deportation was driving many Burundian refugees and asylum seekers in Tanzania out of the country.

The abuses documented in our latest report go far beyond threats and harassment, demonstrating that Tanzanian authorities have committed arbitrary detention, enforced disappearances, torture, and refoulement — the return of refugees and asylum seekers to places where their lives or freedom would be threatened. These are grave violations of the internationally protected right to seek asylum. 

In Burundi, serious human rights violations against real or perceived opposition supporters, including returning refugees, put them at risk. The UN Commission of Inquiry on Burundi reported in September that some returnees continued to face hostility from local officials and the governing party’s youth wing, the Imbonerakure, and that some have been forced to go back into exile.

A clear commitment to uphold international law by Tanzanian authorities would provide vulnerable groups and Tanzanians, with additional protection. Ratifying the UN Convention against Torture would be an important first step. Tanzanian authorities should stop arbitrarily arresting and unlawfully sending back Burundians. 

Tanzania’s regional and international partners, including the East African Community, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and the African Union should publicly urge Tanzania to investigate these abuses and to stop forcibly returning asylum seekers or refugees to Burundi.

Mausi Segun is the Africa director at Human Rights Watch.

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Mausi Segun
Mausi Segun, executive director of Human Right Watch's Africa Division, oversees the work of the division in approximately 30 countries

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