East Africa: Tanzania Begins Mass Deportation of Burundi Refugees

A Burundian refugee child sits on the ground in Tanzania

Tanzania intends to deport up to 200,000 Burundian refugees by year's end. Burundi is going along with the plan, but the UN's refugee agency has objected, demanding voluntary, not forced returns.

Nearly 600 Burundian refugees were sent home from Tanzania on Thursday. They make up the first large group to be repatriated as part of a mass deportation operation that began this week.

Nestor Bimenyimana, Burundi's general manager for repatriation, said the refugees are returning voluntarily because the country's security and political conditions have improved dramatically, less than a year before the country's May 2020 presidential election.

Conflict erupted in Burundi in 2015 over a third term for President Pierre Nkurunziza. The human rights abuses and persecution of political opponents that followed caused hundreds of thousands of Burundians to flee to neighboring Tanzania.

In March 2018, the UN refugee agency UNHCR, Tanzania and Burundi signed a trilateral treaty making it easier for refugees to return home voluntarily. This August, Tanzania and Burundi signed a bilateral deal agreeing to return 200,000 Burundian refugees home by year's end. But the UNHCR is calling on Tanzania's government to refrain from deporting Burundian refugees against their will, saying their lives may be in danger when they get home.

'Let the refugees decide for themselves'

Babar Baloch, global spokesman for the UNHCR, is hoping Tanzania and Burundi will see his organization's point. "Everyone signed the document, both governments agree that a refugee can only be returned when he or she thinks it is time for them to return," said Baloch. "For us, one principle is very important: Let the refugees decide for themselves if it is time for them to return to their country of origin."

"Some people who have been arriving from Burundi still talk about human rights violations and acts of persecution displacing people," Baloch added. "Currently, conditions are not right for mass returns."

According to Kate Pond, the UNHCR's spokeswoman in Tanzania, at least 175,000 Burundian refugees have voluntarily left Tanzania since 2017. Those who left cited poor living conditions in refugee camps and pressure being applied to the Burundian diaspora by the Tanzanian government.

In one example of the latter, Tanzanian Home Affairs Minister Alphaxard Kangi Lugola announced in late September that 163,000 Burundian refugees who were granted Tanzanian citizenship in 2007 would not be allowed to vote in local elections. Many of those people have lived in the country since 1972. Their exclusion from the vote is apparently connected to a government plan to relocate them to a different part of the country, something that many in the diaspora are vehemently opposed to.

Guaranteed safety?

On the whole, new refugees are suffering. "Life is difficult for us in Tanzania," one refugee told DW. Burundians suffer abuse at every turn, he said: "They destroy our markets, rob us, beat us like animals and jail us. The prison in Kigoma is full of Burundians. More than half the inmates are from Burundi. They work like dogs, day and night."

The man is also not convinced by Burundian Vice President Gaston Sindimwo's guarantee that all exiled Burundians can return home safely. "He himself is part of the reason people are getting killed there," the man said. "They are always recovering bodies from rivers or from the hills. I don't think he has ever spoken the truth and he never will. If there was a good solution there wouldn't be any Burundians living abroad, because we love our country."

Upholding the agreement

Serious human rights violations and crimes against humanity continue unabated in Burundi. That was the opinion in a report published last month by the UN's International Commission of Inquiry on Burundi. That is also why the UNHCR refuses to support forced deportations, explained Pond.

"UNHCR will not support the forced return of refugees," she said. "We have called upon both governments to ensure the voluntariness of repatriation and that it must take place in safety and dignity. We have also urged them to respect the Tripartite Agreement signed by the governments of Tanzania, Burundi and the UNHCR in 2017 to ensure that returns meet international standards."

In an attempt to wipe away any confusion, a speaker for the Burundian Ministry of Public Security explained that only those Burundians denied asylum would be repatriated. His assistant said that some 15,000 such people are currently residing in Tanzania despite not having UNHCR refugee status: "Tanzania asked for the repatriation, and ministers from both countries agreed to register those individuals and repatriate them to Burundi. These are not Burundian refugees in Tanzania, but simply Burundians. They never had UNHCR refugee status, and they will be returned to Burundi."

UNHCR: No justification for deportation

Yet, the UNHCR refutes the Burundian government's assessment, saying that all Burundians in Tanzania have refugee status. Therefore, says the UNHCR, there is no justification for deportation.

According to Prosper Kwigize, a DW associate in Tanzania, the real reasons are different altogether. "Tanzania has given three reasons for sending back Burundian refugees," he said. "First, they say Burundi is safe once again. Second, they say Burundians are involved in illegal criminal activity in Tanzania. And third, they say citizens feel unsafe and are fearful to the point of being unable to travel in some parts of the country, like Kigoma."

Kwigize said that hunger, poverty and the hope of being sent to a third country such as Belgium or Canada has kept many Burundians from returning home. But those who choose to return face completely different problems when they get there.

The big question of financing remains unanswered, however, said the UNHCR's Baloch. "Globally we dot get enough resources for refugees, so if they step forward and voluntarily want to return back home we would need to have the resources in place," he explained. "And that is when we go to the international community and donor organizations to make sure those who return voluntarily are supported and well looked after in their country of origin."

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