Rwanda: "As Long as We Live on the Streets, They Will Beat Us" - Rwanda's Abusive Detention of Children

“There is nothing good there,” a former Gikondo detainee tells Human Rights Watch about the center in 2015 (file photo).

For over a decade, Gikondo Transit Center in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital city, has served as an unofficial detention facility where street children, street vendors, sex workers, homeless people, and beggars are arbitrarily locked away. Since 2017, the government has introduced a new legal framework and policies ostensibly designed to reintegrate people accused of exhibiting “deviant behaviors,” including children living on the streets, as part of its strategy to “eradicate delinquency.” But this legislation has only regulated and enshrined arbitrary detention at the Kigali Transit Center—the official name for the Gikondo Transit Center—as authorities turn a blind eye to the beatings and ill-treatment that take place there.

Gikondo and other transit centers in Rwanda are now governed by the 2017 law establishing the National Rehabilitation Service and several subsequent government orders. Under the new framework, anyone exhibiting “deviant behaviors,” defined as “actions or bad behavior such as prostitution, drug use, begging, vagrancy, informal street vending, or any other deviant behavior that is harmful to the public,” can be held in a transit center for up to two months, without any other further legal justification or oversight. According to the law, transit centers are “premises used for accommodating on a temporary basis” people who may then be transferred to a rehabilitation center. A rehabilitation center is defined as “premises used for the conduct of activities dedicated to reforming, educating and providing professional skills and reintegrate any person exhibiting deviant acts or behaviors.”

Under the new legislation, Gitagata Rehabilitation Center in Bugesera district, Eastern Province, is to provide vocational training and access to education and health care for children and women transferred by the district or the City of Kigali.

However, while the 2017 law and other steps taken by authorities have sought to legitimize and regulate transit centers, including Gikondo, in fact they have not served to remedy the inherent illegalities of the detention practice. On the contrary, they provide legislative cover for abuses against detainees to continue.

In January 2020, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, a body of independent experts that monitors implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which Rwanda ratified in 1991, reviews Rwanda’s compliance with the treaty. In its July 2018 report to the committee, the Rwandan government said, “Children in street situations are not treated as offenders as they are always placed in a transit centre where they are held for a short period before longer term remedial or corrective measures are taken.”

Human Rights Watch’s report, based on interviews conducted with 30 formerly detained children aged 11 to 17 between January and October 2019, documents human rights violations against children rounded up in the streets of Kigali and held at Gikondo Transit Center for periods ranging from several days to six months. This report finds that Gikondo Transit Center continues to operate as a de factodetention facility. In addition to their unjustified detention, children are underfed, regularly beaten, and held in overcrowded and unhygienic rooms, without judicial oversight or due process.

Human Rights Watch research suggests that hundreds of children are likely to have passed through Gikondo and been subjected to ill-treatment since the National Rehabilitation Service was established in 2017. This report follows up research carried out by Human Rights Watch on Gikondo Transit Center and published in 2006, 2015, and 2016.

In an assessment of the situation of street children in Rwanda published in May 2019, the National Commission for Children, a government body tied to the Ministry of Gender and Family Promotion mandated to promote children’s rights, documented 2,882 children living on the streets across Rwanda. It found that almost half of this number had been placed at least once in a center for street children, and a third were found in the three districts of Kigali: Gasabo, Nyarugenge, and Kicukiro. It stated that 44 percent of boys and 36 percent of girls said that they experienced violence at the transit center where they were held.

Human Rights Watch found that abuses begin as soon as children are rounded up by police or members of the District Administration Security Support Organ (DASSO), a local security force, in the streets of Kigali.In some cases, children reported being beaten during the arrest, particularly if they tried to escape.

Almost all children interviewed for this report said they were taken to local police stations or sector and cell (local government) offices across Kigali, where they were held for periods ranging from a few hours to one week, without charge and with no regard for due process. Some also reported that police officers beat them. Although some children received an official statement with the accusation levelled against them, many said they never received such a document, and none were given access to a lawyer, guardian, or family member.

Conditions in Gikondo Transit Center fall well below international standards, which are meant to set a minimum level, and are in violation of Rwandan law. At Gikondo, children are assigned to specific rooms. In 2019, Human Rights Watch spoke with 20 children who were held in a room with other children, 4 girls who were held in a room with adult women, and 6 boys called “delinquents” and who were held in a room with adult men accused of minor offenses.

Children estimated there were between 50 and 200 girls and boys detained together with them in the “children’s room,” in deplorable and degrading conditions. Children had to share mattresses and blankets, which were often infected with lice, sometimes with up to four other children. Many children interviewed presented scars and signs of possible skin infections and rashes. Conditions in the room for “delinquents” and for women were described as far worse. In those two rooms, some children were held together with adults in severely overcrowded conditions and many detainees were forced to sleep on the concrete floor.

Most former detainees said they were given food once or twice a day, in insufficient quantities and with poor nutritional value, although some younger children under 14 said they were given extra food.

Sanitation and hygiene conditions are very poor, and some children reported only being allowed to wash once or twice a week. Those detained in the room for children said they had access to drinking water and reported being allowed to go to the toilet during the day. However, detainees in the women’s and “delinquents’” rooms had irregular access to drinking water, sometimes only once a day. They were only allowed to use the toilet at set times and were beaten if they failed to adhere to a schedule. One former detainee said he was forced to defecate on himself several times when he was denied permission to go to the toilet, and then violently beaten for it.

Access to medical treatment at Gikondo is sporadic, and rehabilitation support, such as it is needed, is non-existent. Visits by medical professionals are irregular and the little medical care that is provided often fails to address detainees’ needs. Eighteen children reported experiencing health issues, such as malaria, rashes, or diarrhea, during their time at Gikondo, although most saw health workers who gave them basic medicine, such as malaria tablets or treatment for diarrhea.

In 2015, Human Rights Watch documented how many women, especially street vendors, were arrested with their young children. Several children interviewed in 2019 confirmed that women were still detained with their infants in the women’s room. In July 2019, the National Commission for Human Rights visited Gikondo and raised concerns about children whose parents are never informed of their arrest, children who should be at school, breastfeeding mothers separated from their babies, and drug-using detainees who should be transferred for medical care.

Ill-treatment and beatings of detainees by the police or by other detainees, acting on the orders or with the assent of the police, which should be absolutely banned and subject to criminal punishment, are nevertheless commonplace at Gikondo. Indeed, former detainees spoke of routine beatings for actions as trivial as talking too loudly or not standing in line to use the toilet. Twenty-eight of the thirty children interviewed for this report said they were beaten.

According to the new legal framework and statements by Rwandan authorities, the broader objective of Gikondo is to serve as a short-term screening center to allow authorities to process people accused of “deviant behaviours” for rehabilitation. Street children are meant to either be sent on to Gitagata Rehabilitation Center or reunited with their families. However, in practice, there is no judicial process to determine the legality of any of the detentions, the length of time individuals spend at the center, or how they are released or transferred.

Children’s release from Gikondo is as arbitrary as their arrest and transfer. Twenty children interviewed for this report said they were released back on the streets from Gikondo, some having been collected from the transit center by local district or sector authorities. Most of them said they were threatened and told they would be rearrested if they returned to the streets but given no financial or logistical support to return to their families if they wanted to.

After its July 2019 visit, the National Commission for Human Rights recommended that Gikondo’s authorities ensure that detainees are properly screened, and either transferred to rehabilitation centers, prosecuted, or released, without exceeding the timeframe required by Rwandan law.

Human Rights Watch interviewed eight children in 2019 who were later transferred to Gitagata Rehabilitation Center. Although they found conditions at Gitagata marginally better than Gikondo, children also described regular beatings and ill-treatment there, pushing them to escape from the center. Human Rights Watch did not obtain sufficient information to document and draw broader conclusions on the conditions at Gitagata; however, given that detainees are not allowed to leave the center voluntarily, it clearly constitutes a form of deprivation of liberty and detention.

There are several monitoring mechanisms in place with mandates to provide oversight of transit and rehabilitation centers in Rwanda. The National Rehabilitation Service is required to conduct monthly monitoring of transit centers to ensure their compliance with laws and human rights, but to the best of Human Rights Watch’s knowledge, its reports have not been made public. Additional monitoring by the National Commission for Human Rights and the National Commission for Children has touched upon some of the issues raised in this report, including children being rounded up by police and lengthy detentions, but failed to represent the severity and scale of the abuse and ill-treatment at Gikondo or publicly call for an end to it.

Despite requests for information from Rwandan authorities, Human Rights Watch is not aware of any investigation, prosecution, or other actions by the Rwandan authorities in relation to abuses in transit centers.

The treatment of children in Gikondo violates the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (African Charter) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). Both the African Charter and the CRC require governments to protect children from all forms of physical or mental violence, neglect, and ill-treatment. Under international law, children should only be deprived of liberty as a measure of last resort, and for the shortest appropriate period. In the event a child commits a criminal offence, non-custodial educational or vocational programs, community services, and restorative justice are to be prioritized. The detention of children together with adults is prohibited by both treaties.

In 2013, the Committee on the Rights of the Child asked the government of Rwanda to permanently close Gikondo, stop the arbitrary detention of children in need of protection, and conduct thorough investigations into these abuses. Authorities have failed to implement these calls. Human Rights Watch calls on the Rwandan government to immediately close Gikondo Transit Center and release all detainees there. If any detainee is accused of committing a legitimate criminal offense, they should immediately be brought before a court, charged with the offence, and afforded all due process for a prompt and fair trial or released. Children who are to be charged should be afforded full due process in accordance with juvenile justice standards, including special treatment accorded to them as minors. They should be released pending trial, and if extraordinary circumstances are cited to justify their continued detention, they should be held in facilities designed for the detention of children and treated with full dignity and humanity.

Human Rights Watch calls on the Rwanda National Police and district officials to stop rounding up street children, many of whom end up in Gikondo. The police should investigate cases of arbitrary detention and ill-treatment, such as those described in this report, suspend those responsible for these violations from their positions, and ensure they are brought to justice. Rwanda should focus on exclusively non-custodial measures within the child justice system that have the aim of diverting children from conflict with the law.

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