- The government of Tanzania is accused of having obliged two Burundian refugee families to return home while risking persecution in Burundi. This is claimed by the UN's refugee agency, which earlier has been accused of aiding Tanzanian authorities organising a rushed repatriation of a large Rwandan refugee population without its consent.
The Tanzanian government "recently forced two asylum-seeking families with genuine reasons to fear persecution to return to Burundi, reflecting hardening attitudes" among the authorities in the East African country, the UN's refugee agency (UNHCR) said today. The UN agency however emphasises that Tanzania remains "extremely generous towards some half a million refugees on its soil."
Representatives from UNHCR had interviewed the nine affected Burundian refugees upon their arrival in Tanzania in late December. The UN agency determined that their fear of persecution was "genuine" and had received Tanzania's assurances that they would be given asylum.
Suddenly, on 23 January, however, the nine refugees were deported back to Burundi. UNHCR staff in Tanzania were "not notified" that the asylum decision had been reversed and had had no opportunity, therefore, "to find alternative solutions" for the families, UNHCR spokeswoman Jennifer Pagonis said at a press briefing in Geneva today.
The UN agency today called on Tanzania's government to treat asylum seekers "fairly, in accordance with international law." Ms Pagonis further requested that UNHCR be "part of any screening process of asylum seekers in Tanzania."
Ms Pagonis made sure to thank the authorities of Tanzania for "their long standing commitment to refugees." Tanzania is hosting some 400,000 refugees in several camps, mainly from Burundi and Congo Kinshasa (DRC). Thousands more lived in settlements along the border. Most of the costs for hosting the many refugees are covered by Tanzania, while several UN agencies contribute with some food and shelter.
According to UNHCR, a change in attitude was being noted among Tanzanian officials. Refugees have been ordered to stay inside camps and forbidden to engage in any form of commercial activity.
Recently, Tanzania's large population of Rwandan refugees was repatriated in a very swift operation, following an agreement between UNHCR and the governments of Rwanda and Tanzania. In that operation, UNHCR was strongly criticised by human rights groups for not safeguarding that repatriation was voluntary, according to international law.
The Rwandan refugees were given the orders to prepare for a quick return to their home. UNHCR only had time to register the refugees, but not their possible fears and reasons of persecution in Rwanda. Since this operation, the UN agency has been more careful in listening to the refugees prior to repatriation and assuring that there is enough time to operate by international law.
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