Amnesty International has condemned the forced return of around 1,700 Rwandan asylum-seekers from two refugee settlements in Uganda in a joint operation between the governments of Uganda and Rwanda this week.
On Wednesday, armed police officers rounded up the asylum-seekers and forced them on to waiting trucks during two major operations at the Nakivale and Kyaka II refugee settlements in southwestern Uganda.
When some asylum-seekers tried to escape, police officers fired shots into the air. In the ensuing panic and stampede people were reportedly injured and children were separated from their parents.
The asylum-seekers were then driven into Rwanda and taken to Rukomo transit center in Byumba province.
"Any forced removal of rejected asylum-seekers must be carried out in accordance with Uganda's obligations under international refugee and human rights law, including access to a fair and efficient asylum procedure," said Erwin van der Borght, Director of Amnesty International's Africa Programme.
"The conduct of the authorities and the disturbing manner in which these individuals were rounded up raises serious concern that people with genuine protection claims were returned."
Reports indicate that a number of recognized refugees may have been placed on the trucks and returned to Rwanda. The Office of the Prime Minister, however, has stated that the forced returns targeted rejected asylum-seekers who had exhausted the asylum procedure.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that 25 people who were not among the deported were injured, some from police beatings. Among the injured were six pregnant women who were treated at a local hospital and then released. UNHCR also stated that the operations resulted in the deaths of two men who jumped off trucks en route to Rwanda.
Amnesty International questions whether the correct refugee status determination (RSD) procedure was applied in these cases by the Ugandan authorities. The two groups of Rwandans - both recent arrivals to Uganda – were subjected to an ad hoc procedure whereby authorities sent mobile RSD units to conduct decisions in the camps, without appropriate procedural safeguards.
Despite provisions under national legislation, the UNHCR was not provided with access to the refugee status determination procedures of these two groups.
"The flawed decision making process for these cases raises concerns that those returned have not been granted effective access to a fair and efficient asylum procedure," said Erwin van der Borght.
According to the UNHCR, since the beginning of 2010, 3,320 Rwandans have filed for asylum in Uganda. Ninety-eight per cent were rejected in the past six months.
UNHCR’s Executive Committee (ExCom), a body of 79 member states who advise on international protection issues and which includes Uganda, has stated clearly that the "return of persons found not to be in need of international protection should be undertaken in a humane manner, in full respect for human rights and dignity and, that force, should it be necessary, be proportional and undertaken in a manner consistent with human rights law…"