Burundian refugees fear a hostile Tanzania

They face increasing ill-treatment in their host country, including restrictions on their livelihoods, and many have disappeared, allegedly abducted from the camps.

In 2016, Pierre* fled Burundi in East Africa to escape the widespread political violence that had erupted in his country the previous year, and arrived at one of Tanzania’s overcrowded refugee camps in the hope of finding safety. But almost five years later, the former secondary school teacher has still not escaped the insecurity and fear he fled from in Burundi. 

“The [Tanzanian] government is making life very hard for us here,” said 38-year-old Pierre, who resides in the Mtendeli refugee camp with his wife and small child. “But it’s too dangerous to return to Burundi. Many of my colleagues have been killed or are still in prison. I left because I didn’t want to become another victim.” 

According to refugees, aid workers and rights groups, over the past several months the Tanzanian government has created a volatile situation for Burundian refugees in the country. Rights groups say it is aimed at coercing the refugees into returning to their country, despite them continuing to fear for their lives. 

In 2015, late Burundi president Pierre Nkurunziza, who also headed the National Council for the Defense of Democracy – Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD) ruling party, made the controversial decision to seek a disputed third term in office, igniting weeks-long demonstrations in the country’s then capital, Bujumbura. 

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The announcement and Nkurunziza’s subsequent re-election led to a protracted political and humanitarian crisis in the country that left hundreds dead. More than 400 000 refugees and asylum seekers have fled Burundi over the past five years, many of whom are still crammed inside overcrowded and chronically underfunded refugee camps in Tanzania, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Uganda. 

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Tanzania currently hosts 162 859 Burundian refugees in three camps – Nduta, Nyarugusu and Mtendeli – in the northwestern Kigoma region near the Burundi border. 

Pulling the welcome mat 

Tanzania has historically welcomed Burundis fleeing political and interethnic violence. When the Burundian civil war broke out in 1993, Tanzania began accepting Burundian refugees on a prima facie basis, and refugees were provided plots of land for farming and encouraged to integrate into the community.

Over the past several years, however, Tanzania has pulled back the welcome mat for refugees. In 2017, it revoked the prima facie status for Burundian refugees and between March 2017 and July 2018, all 19 border entry and reception points for Burundian and Congolese asylum seekers were closed. In 2018, the government announced it was withdrawing from the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework, citing “security and lack of funds”, which essentially ended activities aimed at integrating the refugees into the host communities. 

In August last year, Burundi and Tanzania agreed to a plan that would see all the Burundian refugees, nearly 200 000 of them, repatriated to Burundi. This prompted widespread fear of involuntary repatriations as Tanzanian authorities issued inflammatory comments and mixed messages regarding the refugees’ future in the country. 

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Kangi Lugola, Tanzania’s then minister for home affairs, told the British Broadcasting Corporation that “refugees have until 1 October to repatriate. After that, we will send them back whether they want to or not.” He also threatened individuals and non-governmental organisations working on refugee issues in Tanzania that they would “face the wrath” of Tanzania’s President John Magufuli if they opposed the government’s repatriation plans. 

Magufuli, who has faced widespread criticisms over his authoritarian style of governance, ordered refugees to “go home” and insisted that Burundi was “stable”, despite the United Nations warning at the time of widespread and serious human rights violations being committed against Burundian citizens. It said local authorities and the CNDD-FDD’s feared youth league, the Imbonerakure (“those who see far” in Kurundi), were carrying out “killings, disappearances, arbitrary arrests and detentions, acts of torture and ill-treatment and rape against actual or alleged political opposition members”.

Tanzanian authorities also shuttered common markets on which refugees had relied for supplementary livelihoods and enforced a closure on the camps last year, with residents not being allowed to leave the premises. Income-generating agricultural and trading activities were similarly shut down in and around the camps. 

More than 21 000 Burundian refugees were assisted to return to Burundi last year and about 10 000 have so far been repatriated this year, according to the UNHCR. Nearly all of the returnees were from Tanzania, with smaller numbers from Kenya and the DRC. On average, about 600 Burundian refugees are being repatriated each week, the UNHCR says. These numbers are far below Tanzania’s stated goal to repatriate 2 000 refugees a week starting in October last year.

New Frame contacted Tanzania’s Ministry of Home Affairs, which is tasked with managing the refugee camps, numerous times for comment but did not receive a response. 

Voluntary repatriations? 

According to Amira*, a worker providing aid in the camps, the Tanzanian authorities have continued to enforce the restrictions and shut down small markets when they pop up, also demolishing shelters associated with the markets. The government has stopped the refugees from farming small plots of land and banana plantations in the camps. “People are now relying full-time on aid and it has put a lot of pressure on families,” Amira said. 

According to Tina Ghelli, senior communications adviser for the East, Horn of Africa and Great Lakes region for the UNHCR, the Burundi refugee programme is already “severely underfunded” with just 17% of its $150.7 million budget so far received from donors. The refugees have only been receiving 83% of their food rations since June owing to a lack of funding support from the World Food Programme and this is expected to be reduced even further in the coming weeks, Ghelli says. 

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Rights groups have warned that worsening conditions in the camps, compounded by a shortage of funding and the banning of alternative livelihood access for refugees, is forcing refugees to opt for repatriation to Burundi when it is not safe. “Some Burundian refugees have said they signed up for repatriation because life was too difficult in the camps. They didn’t feel safe and they weren’t allowed to have a meaningful life,” said Lewis Mudge, the central Africa director at Human Rights Watch. 

“In some cases, you can definitely say these people are being forced back to their country even though there’s a [voluntary] box ticked,” he said. “They [Tanzanian authorities] are putting pressure that is so intense by making lives very difficult for Burundians in Tanzania. Refugees are living in a climate of fear and they have no choice but to return to a country where they could be harmed.”

Mudge adds that Human Rights Watch is “concerned” that Tanzania’s actions could violate both the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1969 African refugee convention, to which Tanzania is a signatory, which prohibits refoulement – the return of refugees to places where their lives or freedom would be threatened. According to the UNHCR, this also applies to indirect pressure put on refugees so that they have no option but to return to a country where they face a serious risk of harm. 

Reign of terror

Last year, Human Rights Watch interviewed 20 Burundian refugees in Uganda, seven of whom had returned to Burundi only to then flee to Uganda to escape abuse by the Imbonerakure, while the rest went directly to Uganda. They left Tanzania between August 2018 and October 2019. 

The refugees said their reasons for leaving Tanzania included “the government’s threats to deport Burundian refugees, the closing and destruction of markets, restrictions on commercial activities, and a lack of access to services in the camps and freedom of movement”. They also cited fears of being caught up in a “spate of arrests, and alleged disappearances and killings in or near refugee camps”.

Mudge said that Human Rights Watch has received “credible information” on the Imbonerakure infiltrating the refugee camps. “We also have reliable information that those who have disappeared were certainly being threatened before they disappeared,” he said. He noted, however, that Human Rights Watch does not have enough information to determine how or why this is happening in the camps. 

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Pierre says he is “frightened” by the alleged abductions of refugees. He says that at least five refugees have disappeared from Mtendeli over the past three months and about 100 have disappeared from Nyarugusu and Nduta. 

SOS Médias Burundi, a Burundian independent media network, reported that as of July, 97 of the 176 Burundian refugees allegedly abducted from the camps over the past year have still not been found. In an incident documented by the network in July, six Burundian refugees were abducted from the Mtendeli camp at around 2am by a group of armed men, including some wearing Tanzanian police uniforms. The police, however, later told refugee representatives that the missing refugees were not in their custody. 

Ghelli says the UNHCR is aware of the reported disappearances and is “deeply concerned”. The refugee agency has repeatedly requested an investigation and information on the whereabouts of the refugees who have been detained or gone missing, but it has still not received an official response from Tanzanian government officials on the issue, Ghelli says. 

Covid-19 ‘worsening the situation’ 

The coronavirus arrived in the country in March and added another layer of uncertainty to the refugees’ daily hardships. Their freedom of movement was further restricted as the camps’ schools, training programmes and all gatherings of more than a few people were shut down. 

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“There were a lot of fears around Covid,” Amira said. “It was something that was really eating them up and affecting them emotionally. It was the fear of the unknown and worsened the situation for the refugees.” 

Daudi*, another aid worker on the ground in the camps, says that over the past several months there has been a marked increase in cases of post-traumatic stress disorder in the camps owing to the market closures and the heightened stress of Covid-19. 

According to Amira, cases of sexual violence and domestic abuse have also increased. “They don’t have any livelihood engagement and then on top of that you have a fear of a disease. So you can imagine the kind of emotional challenges they were facing.” 

Until now, there has not been a confirmed Covid-19 case in the refugee camps and life in Tanzania has since returned to normal, with the refugees’ initial panic about the virus subsiding. Magufuli’s policies on Covid-19, however, have continued to put aid workers on edge in the camps. 

Tanzania has not released official data on the spread of the coronavirus since May and Magufuli announced that Covid-19 had been removed from the country “by the powers of God”. At the same time, reports emerged alleging the government was covering up the true extent of the outbreak. 

Tanzanians have been called in for interrogations or arrested for spreading information that contradicts the government’s official narrative on Covid-19, while journalists and media outlets have had their credentials suspended for reporting on the virus. 

Amira says the lack of official information on the coronavirus makes it impossible for aid workers to develop comprehensive plans in the camps. “We don’t know if we have cases in the Kigoma region or not. We don’t know how serious the pandemic is in the country or what level of emergency we should be operating in. We really have no idea, so we’re just working around assumptions,” she said. 

‘It’s not safe to go back’ 

Repatriations of Burundian refugees were temporarily suspended because of the Covid-19 pandemic and the lead-up to Burundi’s national elections in May, which resulted in Évariste Ndayishimiye, the secretary general of the CNDD-FDD, being declared the winner amid widespread allegations of voter fraud and violence. Nkurunziza died just a few days after Burundi’s Constitutional Court declared Ndayishimiye’s victory, with most suspecting Covid-19 as the cause of death. 

According to Daudi, Tanzanian government officials recently visited the three refugee camps to inform the residents that their country is now safe to return to. But the refugees tell New Frame a very different story. “I cannot go back to Burundi,” said Kabura*, a 35-year-old refugee who resides in Nduta camp. “The CNDD-FDD system is still there. Nothing has changed. People are still dead, missing and imprisoned.” 

Pierre says the election was a “fraud” and he is scared to go back because “the violence that I left is still there”. The refugees’ fears about returning to Burundi are “perfectly valid”, Mudge says. Ndayishimiye is considered a ruling party “hardliner” and the human rights abuses over the past five years have been perpetrated along party lines. 

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“They see Ndayishimiye as the head of that party for a number of years and he represents some of that oppression,” Mudge explained. “Many of the refugees who fled Burundi since 2015 have either been labelled as the opposition or they are people who, by virtue of the fact that they left, are now regarded as opposition figures. Many of them are not going to feel safe to return home just because there has been a change on the presidential level.” 

Ghelli says that although the situation in Burundi has improved, “political tensions and human rights concerns persist”, and therefore the UNHCR is not promoting refugee returns to Burundi. 

But even in Tanzania, the hardships in the camps continue to worsen, while abductions and disappearances of refugees are still being reported. 

“Tanzania wants refugees out of the country and they will do it by any means necessary,” Pierre said. “The situation is not good here. Tanzania doesn’t treat refugees the way other countries do.” 

*Names have been changed to protect the person’s identity for fear of reprisal.

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