Burundian refugees in Tanzania intimidated into returning home

Burundian refugees living in the Mtabila refugee camp in Tanzania are being coerced into returning home, according to reports received by Amnesty International, from refugees and organizations working in Tanzania.

More than 36,000 refugees have stayed at Mtabila camp since the early 1990s, after fleeing from the conflict in Burundi. The camp is to close by 30 June 2009 as part of a repatriation programme that will see all refugees returned to Burundi.

“We are worried about reports of refugees being pressured to leave the Mtabila camp where some of their homes have been burned in order for them to leave the camp,” said Godfrey Odongo, Amnesty International’s East Africa researcher.

“It is all the more worrying that some of the refugees have had their homes set on fire – and others threatened with arson – by individuals said to be acting under direct the instructions of the Tanzanian authorities.”

Refugee leaders who have attempted to organize affected refugees to advocate for the voluntariness of the repatriation process have been arrested and detained.

The repatriation programme is being implemented in terms of a tripartite agreement agreed to by the Governments of Tanzania and Burundi and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in April 2002. In a December 2008 joint communiqué, the programme was described as “voluntary” and justified on the basis of “recent developments galvanizing the peace and reconciliation process in Burundi.”

Amnesty International said that it understands that, contrary to international and regional law, to date and even as the deadline date for the camp closure looms close, there is no procedure in place to assess any individual claims by refugees and asylum-seekers of well-founded fears of persecution.

“Both Burundi and Tanzania must make it clear to the refugees that any repatriation programme is voluntary and offer the refugees alternative and durable solutions such as local integration,” said Godfrey Odongo. “Any coercion of refugees to return to their original country would be a breach of international and regional law.”

“Any repatriation must respect the relevant principles of refugee protection,” said Godfrey Odongo. “Voluntary returns must be based on a free and informed decision taken in safety and dignity. Intimidation, removing assistance or closing camps can amount to coercion which means repatriations would be involuntary and potentially unlawful.”