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Forced to return home, thousands of Burundi refugees face sexual violence, death, and torture

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Thousands of Burundi refugees under pressure to return home face death, sexual violence, and torture after they arrive, according to a recent Amnesty International report, contrasting attempts by the government to appear like the country is safe enough for Burundians to return home.

In the report “Conform or flee: Repression and insecurity pushing Burundians into exile,” researchers spoke with 129 Burundian refugees and asylum seekers, who had fled because of “a pattern of killings and beatings, sexual violence, excessive use of force during arrest, torture and other ill-treatment in detention, and the payment of ransoms to be released from detention.” Nearly all of the Burundian refugees and asylum seekers spoke about the insecurity caused by the Imbonerakure, the youth league of the Burundi ruling party whose name means “those who see far” which has brutally killed and tortured people in the past.

One man, who belonged to an opposition party, told Amnesty International researchers that he was arrested and held for a week before being released. He had been accused of working with rebel groups from Rwanda because of his friendship with members of another opposition party. Another man was nearly bankrupted when officers demanded payment for his release. He first had to sell his house “to pay them to keep me alive” then turned to his brother when the payment wasn’t enough.

Yet another man was forced to eat his food in a toilet, beaten by police batons, and tortured. “They tortured us to make us confess and say that we worked with the rebels,” the man told researchers. “One day they tortured us in an atrocious way. They took a bottle filled with sand and hung it from our testicles.”

One woman, whose husband fled the country after he was arrested by members of the Imbonerakure, was threatened with death and rape. “They told me to give them money,” the woman said. “I had no money, so two of them raped me. I don’t know their names, but they were the same Imbonerakure who came to my mother-in-law’s house…They said, ‘now we do this, the next time we’ll kill you.’”

These are only a handful of the gruesome encounters that forced Burundians to flee their home country. On the whole, the report provides a pattern of jarring witness testimonies that counter Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza’s declaration in July that “Burundi is at peace.”

The report comes two months after Nkurunziza visited Tanzania to convince 240,000 Burundian refugees to return home. Many had fled two years prior after Nkurunziza was re-elected for a third time in a disputed election in 2015. International observers, including Britain and the United States, determined at the time that the election was not credible because voters faced harassment and intimidation. Crackdowns of civil and political space, particularly to people who belong to the opposition ruling party, were common. Media blackouts were also ordinary occurrences.

Now as the country prepares for the 2020 election, in which the government is seeking to remove term limits, refugees are being returned to a country whose government refuses to investigate human rights violations that have taken place since Nkurunziza’s 2015 reelection. As of the first five months of 2017, roughly 50,000 Burundians have fled the country.

Burundian refugees likely won’t find safety in neighboring countries like Tanzania, Uganda, or the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The week after Nkurunziza visited Tanzania, President John Magufuli suspended the registration and naturalization of thousands of Burundian refugees, the Guardian reported in July. Officials who work closely with the Ugandan government have similarly told refugees that the government of Burundi “is ready to welcome you.” Most recently, DRC security forces gunned down 39 Burundi refugees, including a 10-year-old girl, as they protested the arrests of four men who they were worried would be repatriated.

“Both the president of Burundi as well as the Tanzanian president have initiated a public relations campaign to say that it is now it is now safe to return to Burundi,” Adotei Akwei, the deputy director of advocacy and government relations with Amnesty International USA, told ThinkProgress in a phone interview last week. “The Tanzania government has begun to move to recommending and encouraging and closing borders to Burundian refugees. They are subtly or not so subtly making Burundian refugees aware that they will not be welcome anymore and that they cannot stay.”

Akwei indicated that the refugees have no choice but to return in part because the governments of neighboring countries will cut down the rations of food and aid to a point where “when there’s no certainty that you’re going to have food, you’re faced with no choice but to return to the place you fled.”

Akwei was concerned that there is no safe way to return refugees and asylum seekers back to Burundi, a violation of international laws like the 1951 Refugee Convention and the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights. Burundi is a signatory to both of those conventions.

“This is tied into a larger agenda by the Burundian government and the Burundian president to blunt the criticism of his efforts to stay in power and the message he has used which has resulted in people running for their lives,” Akwei said.

The right to safely return to their home countries is just one aspect of the larger problem plaguing Burundian refugees. The United Nations has only received 12 percent of the $429 million requested aid for humanitarian assistance to be used on the 420,00 Burundian refugees in neighboring countries. The funds shortage has meant refugees live in overcrowded camps and host countries have had to slash rations. In one case, the World Food Programme has had to reduce the monthly food rations to 60 percent in Tanzania, according to AllAfrica.

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