“There is pressure on us”: Burundian refugees in Tanzania pushed to return

Published: 21 Aug 2018
By: Thijs Van Laer


Over the last few months, the Burundian government has continued to insist that the deadly instability is over. Three years after President Pierre Nkurunziza decided to run for a third term, triggering a political crisis that saw an attempted coup and hundreds of deaths, officials insist that Burundi is safe again.

This message has been particularly targeted at hundreds of thousands of Burundian refugees who are now being encouraged to return. In this effort, the Burundian government has been aided by the government in Tanzania, where the majority of Burundian refugees currently reside.

“There is pressure on us,” says a resident of Nyarugusu camp in Tanzania. “It was officially announced that Burundians must go back to their country, because [they say] there is peace now.”

In mid-July, senior Tanzanian officials visited the camps and urged refugees to sign up for voluntary return. According to a resident of Mtendeli camp, the governor of Kigoma claimed this was the only option. “He talked in a way that expressed force,” he recalled. “He said we should register en masse.”

A few weeks later, restrictions were imposed on economic activity in the camps. Market days in the camps were reduced from three to one per week, while the sale of transport, telecommunications and other non-food items were banned outright. Many refugees rely on this trade to survive –  humanitarian support is insufficient due to funding shortfalls – and interpret these measures as economic incentives to return to Burundi.

Since Burundi, Tanzania and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) agreed to assist repatriation in August 2017, over 33,000 refugees have returned to Burundi. Many more are awaiting transport and assistance. Some refugees say the rate of people registering to return has increased under the recent pressure.

However, the vast majority of the 230,000 still living in Tanzania are choosing to stay put. Like many human rights groups, both domestic and international, they are sceptical of the government’s reassurances.

“I don’t see how I can go back to Burundi given the current situation there,” says a young refugee. “There is a great risk. If I return, I can even get killed. The Imbonerakure militia that persecuted me are still there. The solution to my problems is not to go back.”

As Burundi and Tanzania’s efforts ramp up, though, many fear that they might not have a choice. In recent public statements, Tanzanian officials allegedly told refugees: “Do not wait for the country to become angry, as in Mtabila”. This is a reference to a camp that was shut down in 2012. In that instance, the Tanzanian government first removed services, then barred income-generating activities, and then ultimately used force to repatriate Burundian refugees.

Tanzania on a collision course

The Burundian government is eager for refugees to return in order to show that the country has returned to normalcy. In this endeavour, it has found a close ally in Tanzania. Despite facilitating a dialogue between Burundi’s political groups, Tanzania has refused to condemn the ongoing human rights abuses in Burundi.

Last year, President John Magufuli hosted his counterpart on the Tanzanian side of the border and joined him in urging refugees to go home. In a recent statement, the Tanzanian government again persuaded Burundians to return, though it reiterated that it would respect the voluntary nature of the process.

In urging exiles to consider repatriation, officials cited the involvement of the UNHCR and others as “strong evidence that the exercise is conducted in a transparent manner, and strictly observing human rights standards”. UNHCR has only reluctantly assisted the process and refused to promote returns. Last week, a senior representative of the organisation reiterated during a visit to the camps that “there should not be any direct or indirect pressure exercised on refugees to choose whether to return”.

For some time, the Tanzanian government has been on collision course with international actors working on refugee issues. This January, it withdrew from the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF), a global agreement on how to deal with refugee situations. In July 2017, President Magufuli suspended the granting of citizenship to Burundian refugees shortly after meeting with President Nkurunziza.

Tanzania also has limited freedom of movement for refugees. Many Burundians who have left camps to fetch firewood or do business have been detained, beaten or otherwise abused by officials or even citizens.

Some refugees told International Refugee Rights Initiative (IRRI) that they wanted to move to other countries, citing the abuses and pressure among the main reasons. A key destination of choice is Uganda, which has a more open policy to refugees, but many fear being arrested on the roads. In both countries, Burundian refugees are also afraid of the presence of the Imbonerakure militia or government agents in camps.

Raising the risk of abuses

The reasons that refugees choose to go home can be as complex and varied as those that motivate them to flee them. But pressure to return and restrictions on refugee livelihoods increase the risk of human rights abuses, whether in the country of exile or of origin and return. Precipitated repatriations to Burundi have in the past also ignited conflicts over land and complicated relations between returnees, those that stayed, and authorities.

Instead of pressuring refugees to return, Tanzania should contribute to finding a durable solution to the crisis in Burundi and for the refugees that it has an obligation to protect. Donors and the UNHCR must support them in doing so, but also speak up when international norms are being violated.

First published on African Arguments

Programmes: Statelessness, Citizenship and Right to a Nationality, Rights in Exile, Freedom of Movement for Refugees
Regions: Great Lakes Region, Burundi
Type: External Article