Government authorities in Central African Republic and international peacekeepers should allow Muslim residents to seek protection in neighboring countries.
Many Muslim residents living in a few heavily guarded areas endure unsustainable, life-threatening conditions and say they want to leave.
The majority of the Muslims remaining in the western part of the country are ethnic Peuhl nomads living in small enclaves - such as in Boda, Carnot, and Yaloké - that are heavily guarded by African Union (MISCA) peacekeepers and French (Sangaris) troops. Because of persistent threats against the Peuhl, peacekeepers drastically restrict the residents' movements.
"Conceding that many threatened Muslims in the Central African Republic need to leave the country temporarily is an option of last resort, but there are no other immediate solutions," said Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at Human Rights Watch.
"Many Muslims in western Central African Republic have clearly and unequivocally expressed a desire to flee to neighboring countries, and they should be allowed to leave safely."
Since September 2013, the predominantly Christian and animist anti-balaka militia has carried out widespread and systematic attacks against the Muslim minority in Central African Republic, resulting in thousands of deaths and the flight of hundreds of thousands of Muslims from their homes.
The 2,000 French soldiers under Operation Sangaris and 6,000 African peacekeepers under the African Union's MISCA mission have been unable to stop many of these attacks.
Anti-balaka fighters for six months have sought to avenge the brutal abuses by the mostly Muslim Seleka rebel coalition that overthrew the government of Francois Bozizé in March 2013.
Entire districts of the capital, Bangui, have been completely cleansed of their Muslim populations. In many major towns in the west, where thousands of Muslims once lived, none remain.
In Yaloké, 490 Peuhl who fled the southwestern part of the country four months ago are being housed in three dilapidated government buildings on a hilltop in the center of town, protected by MISCA peacekeepers and local gendarmes.
The anti-balaka frequently attacked the Peuhl as they fled the southwest, raiding thousands of head of their cattle. Many of the Peuhl have machete wounds from anti-balaka attacks.
The men in the group are not allowed to leave the camp, while local people routinely threaten and insult Peuhl women who venture a few meters outside to search for firewood and water.
Many of the children and adults are suffering from respiratory diseases and malnutrition, and are forced to sleep in the open. During the last week of May 2014, when researchers from Human Rights Watch visited the Peuhl on several occasions, at least four children, including twin newborns, died because of the dire conditions in the camp.
Despite the Peuhl's vulnerability, the captain commanding the local peacekeeping contingent from the Republic of Congo (Brazzaville) openly threatened them in front of Human Rights Watch researchers, vowing to shoot anyone who tried to board a nearby convoy of commercial trucks that could have transported them to Cameroon.
After Human Rights Watch researchers protested, the captain said he was "only trying to scare [the Peuhl]." But he insisted that he would not allow them to board the trucks, saying that the country's interim authorities firmly opposed any further departure of Muslims from the country.
Members of the Peuhl community trapped in Yaloké told Human Rights Watch that they were united in their desire to seek safety in Cameroon. They said they were being held in Yaloké against their will after local authorities had told them they would be allowed to go to Cameroon.
Human Rights Watch spoke with humanitarian, diplomatic, and government sources who said that the country's interim authorities began to oppose the departure of Muslims after the United Nations and MISCA troops supported the April 27 evacuation of 1,300 trapped Muslims from the PK12 area of Bangui, the capital.
Anti-balaka fighters attacked the convoy and killed two fleeing Muslims. The interim authorities then said that they had not approved the evacuation and insisted that there should be no more evacuations without government consent.
Human Rights Watch researchers also found dire conditions in the southwestern diamond-trading town of Boda, where an estimated 11,000 Muslims are trapped.
Attacks on the Muslims continue, despite the presence of African peacekeepers and French troops. In Carnot, 800 to 900 Muslims are trapped at the local Catholic Church in deplorable conditions. Some have been there for three months. Anti-balaka forces attacked them as recently as May 24.
Although some international humanitarian organizations are operating in the capital, few are working in more rural areas, compounding the plight of the trapped Peuhl.
An unknown number of Peuhl nomads are still in rural areas with their remaining cattle herds, trying to avoid the anti-balaka violence.
International law grants everyone the right "to leave any country, including his own" and to seek asylum abroad. The Central African Republic's Muslim population also has the right to freedom of movement in the country. The restrictions the interim authorities placed on the voluntary movement of threatened Muslim communities are inconsistent with these international legal obligations, and point to the need for a more durable approach to ensuring the security of Muslim residents.
The interim authorities should allow Muslim residents freedom of movement and respect their right to seek safety abroad, Human Rights Watch said.
The interim authorities, the United Nations, MISCA peacekeepers, and French Sangaris troops should also work together to assist the trapped Muslims, including by providing security against anti-balaka attacks to those who intend to leave to seek protection in neighboring countries.
The interim authorities and the international community should make a firm commitment to create the conditions as soon as possible to allow Muslims to exert their right to return to their original locations.
"Muslim communities in the Central African Republic have faced persistent threats for six months, but the authorities haven't yet developed a suitable response to their plight," Bouckaert said. "Keeping desperate Muslims in tightly guarded enclaves in terrible conditions is no way to deal with their situation."