Preventing illegal extraditions, refoulement and cross-border persecution in East Africa
Published: 31 Jan 2018
Following recent cases of abductions and extraditions in East Africa, a new policy paper by the International Refugee Rights Initiative (IRRI) seeks to clarify the key legal obligations of countries hosting foreign political opponents and opposition figures, and to urge governments to respect these obligations.
Across East Africa the protection of politically active or politically sensitive exiles is repeatedly compromised for political reasons and in violation of international law, as host governments fail to prevent, and in some cases even facilitate, the abductions and extraditions of foreigners eligible for international protection.
Only a month ago, South Sudanese opposition official Marko Lochapio Lokidor was abducted from Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya and reportedly transferred to the South Sudanese authorities. Less than three months earlier, four leaders of a Burundian armed rebel group were reportedly arrested in Tanzania and extradited to Burundi.
In August 2017, another South Sudanese official was briefly abducted by unknown armed civilians in Uganda, but released with the assistance of the Ugandan police, and in January 2017, two South Sudanese individuals, affiliated with the opposition, were abducted in the streets of Nairobi. Two months earlier, in November 2016, South Sudanese opposition spokesperson James Gatdet Dak was also abducted in Kenya and extradited to South Sudan. Meanwhile, Rwandan refugees in Uganda and Ethiopian refugees in Kenya, have long been the target of harassment by the authorities of their home country.
These incidents violate multiple legal obligations of countries of asylum. Most importantly, the principle of non-refoulement which prohibits the removal of any person to a territory in which s/he would face persecution or torture. It is part of international customary law and is enshrined in a number of international and regional conventions.
The principle of non-refoulement protects all individuals, regardless of whether or not they have been granted refugee status, and also applies when an extradition is sought by the country of origin of an individual: if the extradited person would face persecution or torture upon being returned to his or her country, then the extradition would be illegal.
Finally, such incidents are not only illegal but can be politically damaging. Countries of asylum often play an important role as mediators in the violent conflicts the refugees they host are fleeing. When they target refugees because of the political opinions they express, they ultimately create an environment in which there are no neutral mediators, and therefore hinder the possibility of a meaningful, inclusive dialogue to bring the violence to an end.
The paper urges governments to refrain from removing individuals to territories in which they are at risk of persecution or torture and calls them to properly investigate cases of disappearances, abductions and harassments of refugees.