DAR ES SALAAM – Tanzania’s president, John Magufuli, has drawn fierce criticism from activists after urging thousands of Burundian refugees to return to their home country.
Magufuli has ordered the suspension of the registration and naturalisation of thousands of Burundian refugees, and told his home affairs minister, Mwigulu Nchemba, to stop granting them citizenship.
“It’s not that I am expelling Burundian refugees. I am just advising them to voluntarily return home,” said Magufuli. “I urge Burundians to remain in their country, I have been assured, the place is now calm.”
But Joseph Siegle, director at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies in Washington, said Magufuli’s comments were “at odds with the situation on the ground, as all available reports on Burundi by the East African Community, African Union and UN demonstrate that the situation is getting worse and refugee numbers are increasing”.
Siegle is among a number of regional experts who have attacked Magufuli, pointing out that the situation in Burundi remains dangerous. Peace talks between the government and opposition in Burundi have stalled.
Magufuli’s order came shortly after he held talks with Pierre Nkurunziza, his Burundian counterpart, at the border town of Ngara on 20 July.
Tanzania hosts 241,687 Burundian refugees and asylum seekers, according to the latest statistics from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, and Siegle said: “Magufuli’s desire for the Burundian refugees to return home reflects the strains that hosting the approximately 240,000 registered refugees is having on Tanzania. Indeed, Tanzania hosts more Burundian refugees than any other country.”
In a May report, the UNHCR expressed concern over the unstable situation in Burundi, where there has been unrest since 2015, when Nkurunziza announced he would change the constitution to seek a third term in office. Burundi’s security and intelligence services – in collaboration with the ruling party’s youth league, known as the Imbonerakure – are accused of numerous killings, disappearances, rapes and arbitrary arrests. Armed opposition groups have also carried out attacks.
“Tanzania has an ongoing obligation under international refugee law to ensure that Burundians fleeing violence and persecution can remain in Tanzania,” said Maria Burnett, associate director at Human Rights Watch.
“The Tanzanian government should ensure that president Magafuli’s words are not used by local actors to intimidate or threaten Burundians to return home or lead them to believe they have no option but to return.
“Refugees should continue to have a genuinely free choice about whether to return and be fully informed about conditions in Burundi.”
During his Tanzanian visit, Nkurunziza made assurances that his country has stabilised, asking all Burundians outside the country to return home to help rebuild the nation.
However, in June the UN commission of inquiry on Burundi stressed a “persistence of serious human rights violations in a climate of widespread fear”.
The report said: “These violations include extrajudicial executions, acts of torture and other inhuman and degrading treatment, sexual and gender-based violence, arbitrary arrests and detention and enforced disappearances, often accompanied by demands for large ransoms from families in exchange for promises to release detainees or to find those who have disappeared.
“Many of these violations have been committed by members of the national intelligence service and the police, sometimes assisted by the Imbonerakure.”
Paul Niyirora, a Burundian refugee based in western Uganda, said he would not return. “There is no way we can back to Burundi. It’s all a lie by Nkurunziza that Burundi has stabilised. Which safety is he talking about? Burundi is still rife with torture, persecution, human rights abuses and detentions.
“Maybe it’s a trick to take us back in order to kill us. We shall remain here. Even if we stay in camps, at least it is safer than going back home.
“The security situation remains precarious and accountability for the many abuses in recent years has not occurred.”
The mediator of the Burundi dialogue, former Tanzania president Benjamin Mkapa, has said that the only way for refugees to return was to settle the crisis through political dialogue.
In January 2017, the government refused to participate in peace talks with the members of the opposition alliance National Council for the Restoration of Arusha Agreement and Rule of Law – known by the French acronym CNARED – leaving the dialogue in limbo.
“While the UN envoy has attempted to restart the stalled negotiations, it is Nkurunziza’s regional neighbours that have greater influence over his actions,”said Alex Fielding, a risk and crisis management consultant with 4C Strategies.
“Now, with Tanzania essentially backing the Nkurunziza narrative that things are calm and it’s time to rebuild the country with him at the helm, these prospects are bleak. Most of Nkurunziza’s regional counterparts have weak democratic credentials and little interest in getting involved.
“Rwandan president Paul Kagame ditched term limits by way of a questionable referendum, Joseph Kabila [president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo] has postponed elections indefinitely in defiance of constitutional term limits, and the embattled South African president Jacob Zuma has little interest or credibility in lecturing neighbours on good governance.”