“There is no security here”: Fears of Burundian refugees in a Ugandan refugee settlement

Published: 16 Mar 2018
By: Ariel Plotkin - IRRI Volunteer


They may have fled abuses in their country, but Burundian refugees in Nakivale refugee settlement in Uganda still live in fear for their safety and do not feel beyond the reach of the Burundian government and its militia, the Imbonerakure.

During a visit to Nakivale refugee settlement in South-Western Uganda in December 2017, IRRI spoke to 31 Burundian refugees who all expressed concern over their safety in the settlement. Many said they had seen individuals who they suspected of belonging to the Imbonerakure in the settlement. Several spoke of being followed and photographed, of receiving threatening text messages or phone calls from what they believe to be Imbonerakure or Burundian security agents, or had men banging at their door in the middle of the night. Several refugees told IRRI of abuses they reported to the police, UNHCR and protection NGOs. Others also told IRRI of recent attacks on Burundian refugees in the settlement.

Since the political crisis erupted in April 2015, 428,351 Burundians have left their country, fleeing violence, threats, torture and other abuses by members of the Imbonerakure and the killings and enforced disappearances of their family members. Over 40,000 of them have sought protection in Uganda and more than 28,000 live in Nakivale.

Threats, surveillance, attacks and killings fuelling fear

The majority of the refugees IRRI spoke to recalled that when they arrived at the settlement in 2015 or 2016, they received regular calls or text messages from unknown numbers, asking where they lived or threatening them. Some said these have now stopped but others say they continue to receive threats in this way.

Citing the relative proximity of Burundi to Nakivale and the ability of individuals to freely come and go in the settlement, many spoke of feeling unsafe as they see Imbonerakure in the settlement. Some said the Imbonerakure took photos of them and others followed them. Two said they saw the men who killed their relatives or tortured them in the settlement.

Several spoke of attacks, disappearances and killings of Burundian refugees in the settlement, including a human rights defender attacked by two men with a machete in the settlement in August 2016. The UN Commission of Inquiry on Burundi in 2017 stated that some refugees they interviewed outside Burundi, including in Uganda, said they had recognised intelligence agents and Imbonerakure in their country of exile. Other groups have documented an alleged assassination attempt on a Burundian refugee in Uganda in March 2016 and a pattern of threatening phone calls to Burundian refugees.

One woman told IRRI that her nephew disappeared from the settlement and she fears he was kidnapped: “When we arrived [in Nakivale] in July 2015, we saw the infiltration [of Imbonerakure]. My nephew disappeared from the camp in October 2015. He was alone when it happened. Until now I don’t know where he is.”

Another described how his three year old son was killed and how he continues to live in fear for his family:. Although IRRI was unable to corroborate this information, he spoke of how he believes that the boy was killed by Imbonerakure or Burundi security agents “At the beginning, in July 2015, I received threatening phone calls. I was followed and attacked in Nakivale. My three year old son was killed here in May 2017. I was elsewhere and they came to my house and killed my son. You can’t do anything about it. I stay awake all night because something could happen to my family.” He reported this to the police but is not aware of any investigation conducted.

Refugees who had fled Burundi because they were targeted as members of political opposition or civil society group told IRRI that they are particularly in danger. As one refugee told IRRI: “In 2016, there were Imbonerakure that saw that I was here. One said to me ‘We will kill you the next time.’ I went to the police and the policeman gave me a paper to give to the chairman [of ‘La Defense’, a self-defence group, see below] to protect me. The chairman gave me people who patrol around my house at night, even today.”

Another told IRRI: “Two months ago, five Imbonerakure came to my house during the day to ask if I was there. I asked them who they were and they left. At night, around midnight, someone knocked on my door and demanded that I open it. I screamed. My neighbours heard it and [the men] ran away. They left a note saying ‘Even if you are here, we will follow you. You do not need to hide.’ The next day I went to the police to file a complaint. Now I prefer to be at the house from 3pm and lock my door”.

Out of fear for their safety, some said they moved to a different part of the settlement after people they believe to be Imbonerakure came to their house. Others said they do not leave their house or keep it locked. Some also moved from the settlement to nearby cities for security reasons, however one refugee told IRRI that he has continued to receive threatening telephone calls and was attacked since he left the settlement.

Lack of faith in the protection system or Ugandan police

Many of those IRRI spoke to said they had no faith in the ability of the police to protect them. Some described how they had either gone to the police to file a report but that no investigation had taken place. Others said an investigation had started, but that they had had no updates from the police since. Some said that they believe there is no point in going to the police, who they saw as corrupt and lacking impartiality.

As one refugee told IRRI: “Security here is not good. There are Imbonerakure here. We bring them to the police and often they are released immediately.” Another added: “The police in the settlement are corrupt. The Imbonerakure who they catch give the police money, so they are released.”

Many also stated that they were not aware of organisations in the camp that they could go to for help, despite the fact UNHCR, implementing partners and the Ugandan police have a protection system in place.

The Office of the Prime Minister (OPM), told IRRI on 19 February 2018 that it was not aware of security issues of Burundian refugees, but that it would look into information IRRI shared and that capacity problems in the settlement made it difficult to follow up on any issues refugees raised. However, IRRI has seen a letter from OPM stating that it conducted a “preliminary investigation” into several attacks on a Burundian refugee in 2017 and that the scene of the attacks were visited. It concluded that his “high security risk level is equally affecting him as such there is urgent need to have this household relocated.”

IRRI also shared and discussed its findings with UNHCR prior to this publication.

As such, some Burundian refugees have taken matters into their own hands to protect their community and have set up what they described as a voluntary protection service, called “La Défense”. According to the refugees, its members are elected by the refugees and their head reports incidents to the police. Several said this has increased their feeling of security.

One refugee described how this protection service came to his aid when he was in danger: “In October, two people came to my home and asked my neighbours where they could find me and my family. That night at 2am, I heard banging on the door and someone yelled: ‘Open! Open or we will burn your house’. When the head of ‘La Défense’ saw I was in danger [and came over], they fled. Other people [who he believes to be Imbonerakure] stopped my son in the road and asked him where his mother and father were. […]I have written to the police, who wrote to UNHCR. […] I have not received a response. I stay at home, I cannot go wherever I want.”

Ugandan authorities and humanitarian organisations must do more to provide protection

Of course, refugees should not feel the need to put in place their own security arrangements but should be able to rely on the presence of police and protection actors in the settlement. There is a system in place in Nakivale to provide protection to refugees and to report on security issues. Yet gaps in security are not only reported by Burundian refugees: following the killing of a refugee by gunmen in October 2017, the Ugandan Human Rights Commission stated that it was “gravely concerned by the laxity in security at the refugee camp”.

These security fears as well as the lack of trust in the Ugandan authorities to provide protection has also been exacerbated by the fact that the Ugandan authorities allowed Burundi’s Minister for Home Affairs to visit Nakivale in February 2017 where he told refugees to return home. The refugees IRRI spoke to interpreted this as a threat. Instead of allowing the Burundian government to convince refugees to go back to Burundi, where serious human rights abuses are ongoing, Uganda must do more to uphold its responsibility under international law to protect refugees on its territory.

Ugandan authorities, UNHCR and humanitarian organisations responsible for protection of refugees in Nakivale must do more to increase the perception by refugees that adequate protection is being provided and that reported security issues are followed by timely and adequate action. In order to do so, they should urgently raise awareness about the protection system in place and how to access it, as well as regularly follow-up on any complaints with those concerned. Only if this is improved will Burundian refugees feel secure in the country where they fled to after escaping insecurity and human rights abuses in their country of origin.

Programmes: Rights in Exile
Regions: Great Lakes Region, Burundi, Uganda
Type: IRRI Blog, Library