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Rights Group Fears Forced Return of Refugees by Uganda, Tanzania

Camps for Burundian refugees in Tanzania and for Rwandan refugees in Uganda are scheduled to close in the coming month. The organization Human Rights Watch is raising concerns that the governments may be preparing to forcibly return refugees in violation of international laws.

On June 30, Tanzania is scheduled to close a refugee camp hosting between 36,000 and 38,000 refugees who fled civil war in neighboring Burundi. On July 31, camps in Uganda hosting nearly 20,000 Rwandan refugees are set to close.

Seeking alternatives

Both countries have told the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, that they will seek alternatives - including citizenship or resettlement in a third country - for refugees who do not want to return home and will not send any refugees home by force. But Human Rights Watch says the governments need to do more to inform the refugees of the options available to them.

A refugee researcher for Human Rights Watch, Gerry Simpson, says that so far, these choices have not been conveyed to the refugees.

"We have seen in both cases through interviews we've done in the camps and the fact that refugees have fled some of these camps that they're afraid that they're going to be forcibly returned and neither Tanzania nor Uganda have reassured the refugees that they won't be forcibly returned and neither have explained to them what options they have after the camps have closed," he said.

Threat of return

Instead, the organization says both countries have threatened to return the refugees by force and to treat those who do not leave as illegal immigrants. The group notes that Tanzania, in particular, forcibly returned Rwandan refugees in 1996, and Rwandan and Burundian refugees in 2006.

Simpson says the organization's concerns have been heightened by recent events in nearby Rwanda, where over 500 refugees were forcibly returned to Burundi on June 2, after a camp was closed.

"The military and the police turned up in trucks and busses, went to each and every hut, pulled refugees out of the huts at gunpoint, and beating some of the refugees with batons, pushed them into busses and trucks and drove them to the Burundi border where they dumped them," he said. "It's a clear violation of international refugee law which requires governments not to forcibly return recognized refugees."

When civil war broke out in Burundi in 1993, hundreds of thousands of Burundians fled across the border to Tanzania. Since 2002, according to the European Union, over 350,000 have gone home. Human Rights Watch says many of those still in Tanzania are afraid that they will be caught up in land disputes if they return.

Will they be targeted?

Similarly, thousands of Rwandans who fled to Uganda following the 1994 genocide have since returned home. But many of those who have not are particularly worried about being targeted by the government for involvement in the genocide. Rwandan state media has reported that 20 refugees have been fleeing the camps every day in the past month.

Tanzania also hosts over 200,000 Burundian refugees who fled a previous wave of violence in 1972. The majority of them have taken up a recent offer of Tanzanian citizenship.