Human Rights Watch says Tanzanian authorities have gravely abused at least 18 Burundian refugees

Tanzanian authorities have gravely abused at least 18 Burundian refugees and asylum seekers since late 2019, Human Rights Watch said on Monday. The whereabouts of several who were forcibly disappeared remain unknown, and additional Burundians may have suffered similar abuse.

Between October 2019 and August 2020, Tanzanian police and intelligence services forcibly disappeared, tortured, and arbitrarily detained at least 11 Burundians for up to several weeks in abysmal conditions in a police station in Kibondo, Kigoma region. Three were released in Tanzania, and Tanzanian authorities forcibly returned the other eight to Burundi in August, where they have been detained without charge. Tanzanian police have arrested and forcibly disappeared seven other refugees and asylum seekers since January 2020. The arrests occurred in Mtendeli and Nduta refugee camps in Kigoma region, near the border with Burundi.

“Tanzanian authorities’ enforced disappearances of Burundian refugees and asylum seekers in Tanzania are heinous crimes, not least because of the anguish and suffering caused to family members, many of whom fled similar abuses in Burundi,” said Mausi Segun, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The Tanzanian government should urgently and impartially investigate allegations that Burundians have been abducted, tortured, and illegally handed over to Burundian authorities, and ensure that those responsible are held to account.”

More than 150,000 Burundian refugees live in camps in Tanzania, many of whom fled violence in Burundi after then-president Pierre Nkurunziza’s decision to run for a disputed third term in 2015. The Tanzanian government has been pressing the refugees to return to Burundi.

Between August and November 2020, Human Rights Watch conducted phone interviews with 23 victims of abuses, witnesses, and victims’ family members. Seven other sources working in the camps who did not wish to be identified corroborated the accounts of victims and family members.

All the cases documented indicate that Tanzanian authorities were involved in the enforced disappearances. Nine of the victims said they were held incommunicado for up to several weeks at Kibondo police station and that their families were not informed of their whereabouts. Tanzanian intelligence agents or police interrogated detainees about alleged affiliation with armed groups and possession of weapons, their activities in the camp, and in some cases asked for money to release them.

The Burundians said that Tanzanian police detained them in rooms with no electricity or windows, took them to a separate building on the police station grounds, and hanged them from the ceiling by their handcuffs. Some said that police and intelligence agents gave them electric shocks, rubbed their faces and genitals with chili, and beat and whipped them. In some cases, police and intelligence officers told them they had received information from Burundian authorities about them, suggesting collusion between agents from the two countries.

A Burundian refugee who spent 23 days at Kibondo police station in July described being hung from the ceiling by his handcuffs: “We screamed as if we were being crucified…. They said they wanted one million [Tanzanian] shillings [US$430].” When he said he was unable to pay, the police accused him of discouraging refugees from returning to Burundi and of trying to destabilize Burundi. “They used bike spokes to pierce our genitals and rubbed chili on them,” he said. “We ate once every three days … they said they were going to kill us.”

When told he could remain in detention in Tanzania or be transferred to Burundian authorities, he pleaded with them to let him return to Burundi. He and seven other Burundians who were returned in August have been detained since then in Muramvya and Bubanza prisons in Burundi. They said Burundian national intelligence agents briefly presented them before a judicial official in August, without any lawyers present, who repeated the Tanzanian authorities’ accusations of attempting to destabilize Burundi before ordering their transfer to prison. None of the detainees have seen a judge or been formally charged since.

In the cases of the seven other refugees and asylum seekers arrested by the police, family members said they had received no response from police officers in the camps when they asked where their loved ones were. Some of them have also contacted the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR).

In response to Human Rights Watch’s request for information on these allegations, UNHCR said it was deeply concerned over reports of disappearances of refugees in Tanzania and had repeatedly expressed these concerns with the Tanzanian authorities both orally and in writing, requesting a full investigation and providing a written report to the government. UNHCR wrote: “After multiple inquiries, the government informed UNHCR in August that a high-level investigation was underway. We have not been informed of any results regarding this investigation. We continue to raise this issue with the government as a matter of urgency.” UNHCR concluded: “The physical security of refugees is the responsibility of the country hosting them and to that end UNHCR calls for the Tanzanian authorities to take all the necessary measures to ensure the security of Burundian refugees, in line with their international obligations.”

Human Rights Watch sent letters on October 26 providing information about the documented cases and queries about investigations to Tanzania’s director of public prosecutions, director of refugee services at the Ministry of Home Affairs, and inspector general of police. On November 18, Human Rights Watch wrote to the Burundian foreign affairs and justice ministers to request information on the eight Burundians who are currently detained in Muramvya and Bubanza prisons. Human Rights Watch has not received any responses.

Tanzania’s transfer of detained Burundian refugees and asylum seekers to Burundi without basic due process violates the international legal prohibition against refoulement, the forcible return of anyone to a place where they would face a real risk of persecution, torture, or other ill-treatment, or a threat to their life.

In Burundi, serious human rights violations against real or perceived opposition supporters, including returning refugees, put them at risk, Human Rights Watch said. A UN Human Rights Council-mandated Commission of Inquiry reported in September that serious human rights violations have persisted in Burundi since 2019. The commission found that some returnees continued to face hostility from local officials and the ruling party’s youth wing, the Imbonerakure, and that “[r]eturnees have sometimes been victims of serious violations that have forced them to go back into exile.”

“We are concerned that the Burundians who have been disappeared face a fate like those already unlawfully returned to Burundi, or worse,” Segun said. “Tanzanian authorities should make every effort to locate these people, notify their families, and provide them with the basic rights due to refugees the world over.”

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