One year after the crisis in Burundi began, the United Nations refugee agency on 22 April 2016 said that almost 260,000 people have fled the country, warning that the number could increase by thousands throughout the year – unless a political solution is found and a civil war averted.
According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), “to date, 259,132 people have fled the country, and we are planning our humanitarian response based on a figure of some 330,000 refugees by year’s end.”
In spite of the increasing difficulty in crossing borders, people continue to arrive in neighbouring countries with reports of human rights abuses in Burundi that include torture, sexual violence, arbitrary detention and extortion.
Speaking from the Palais des Nations, UNHCR spokesperson Leo Dobbs said that “continuing international support is needed to help ease the tension and encourage an inclusive dialogue.”
With mass returns not currently expected soon, UNHCR will in the coming year put greater emphasis on education for children and youth, and encourage refugees to become self-sufficient at a time when budget shortfalls are leading to cuts in some assistance.
UNHCR noted that it is seeking almost $175.1 million for its Burundi crisis operations this year, yet has to date only received $47.8 million – or some 27 per cent.
“This means we are struggling to provide even the basics such as shelter, household items and latrines. The provision of services such as specialized counselling, care for the disabled and elderly, protection of the environment and even primary health care may also fall by the way side,” he explained.
The situation one year in is tense and marked by sporadic violence that has killed more than 400 since last year. At least 25,000 people having fled to safer areas in Makamba, Rutana and Kirundo, however freedom of movement is becoming onerous.
While people continue to cross to neighbouring countries from the provinces of Ruyigi, Muyinga, Kirundo, Rutana, Makamba, Rumonge, Bujumbura and Kibitoke, small numbers have been returning spontaneously.
Meanwhile, worsening economic conditions inside Burundi threaten to exacerbate the situation, fuelling further displacement and discouraging refugees and thousands of internally displaced from returning home under.
Tough Exile Conditions
Mr. Dobbs said elaborated that large refugee influxes would present further challenges to the already arduous conditions.
Of the 135,941 Burundian refugees in Tanzania, more than 71,000 live in an overcrowded camp in Nyarugusu, which has become one of the largest refugee camps in the world. Already living under very hard conditions, the country continues to admit an average 130 people a day. UNHCR has put a priority on decongesting the camp.
In Rwanda, host to some 76,404 people, arrivals continue to be registered at a rate of about 130 per week. Urban refugees have been increasingly approaching UNHCR to move to Mahama camp, in the Eastern province, after spending the last of their savings to keep alive.
Uganda, where some 24,583 have sought safety, the April arrival rate has levelled off to about 25-35 a day. Last week, 167 Burundian refugees who arrived at the Nakivale settlement reported difficulties crossing borders, especially without papers.
At the same time, refugees in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which currently accommodates 22,204 people, have steadily increased – with the first three months of this year registering 900 people each. Most are staying at the Lusenda camp, which, with a capacity for 18,000, now hosts more than 16,000 refugees.
Despite space restrictions and capacity problems, these countries generously continue to accept people, but will need increased international support to host more.
“We urge host countries to keep their doors open and donors to continue and step up support for the refugee response,” UNHCR concluded. (Source: UN).
Torture and Illegal Detention on the Rise
On 18 April 2016, the United Nations human rights chief warned of a “sharp increase in the use of torture and ill-treatment in Burundi” and voiced concerns about worrying reports of the existence of illegal detention facilities, both in Bujumbura and in the countryside.
“Since the beginning of the year, my team has recorded at least 345 new cases of torture and ill-treatment. These shocking figures are a clear indicator of the widespread and growing use of torture and ill-treatment by Government security forces,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, in a press release.
His Office (OHCHR) estimates that some 595 people have been ill-treated or tortured since April 2015, a figure which is likely to be an under-estimate. “Torture and ill-treatment mainly take place at the time of arrest, upon arrival or during detention, especially in facilities run by the Service national de renseignements (SNR), the police and, to a lesser extent, the army. Perpetrators of torture and ill-treatment have so far enjoyed total impunity,” Mr. Zeid said.
“Many detainees visited by our team in the past few weeks had fresh wounds on their bodies. Some were unable to walk without assistance after being beaten with belts, iron rods or sharp objects, or burned. I am profoundly disturbed by these terrible accounts and I urge the Burundian Government, in the strongest terms possible, to put an immediate end to these unacceptable and illegal practices,” he added.
Most of the tortured and ill-treated detainees say they were denied medical treatment. Some said intelligence services hid them in the toilets for days so their torture wounds could heal before they were returned to cells holding other prisoners.
Signs of torture in SNR facilities and police stations
During a visit by a UN human rights team to SNR facilities in Bujumbura last week, 30 of the 67 people held there displayed physical signs of torture. Many irregularities were identified during the visit, including the fact that 25 of the detainees had been kept in custody beyond the prescribed maximum time limit.
In addition, while all detainees had been arrested for what were reportedly minor offences, the accusations entered against many of them in the SNR registry were for much more serious criminal offences, including undermining State security, illegal possession of arms and espionage.
OHCHR also indicated that several cases of ill-treatment and torture have also been reported at police stations, especially in those located in the two Bujumbura neighbourhoods of Citiboke and Musaga, and at the Mutakura military camp.
The High Commissioner noted that the use of torture and ill-treatment was also widespread in the countryside, noting a case of two men who said they were arrested by SNR agents in Nkamba province at the end of March.
They said they were seriously beaten and repeatedly dropped in Lake Tanganyika with their hands tied on several occasions in order to force them to confess to crimes.
“I recognize the efforts made by the Government in releasing at least 45 demonstrators following the Secretary-General’s visit. However, in addition to the reports of torture and ill-treatment in official detention facilities, I am deeply concerned about information emerging about the existence of secret detention facilities across the country,” the High Commissioner said.
Executions of Detainees Witnessed
According to OHCHR, a man who was arrested at the end of March by unidentified armed individuals stated that he was taken blindfolded to an unfinished building in an unknown location, where nine other people were also being held.
The victim reported witnessing the execution of two fellow detainees before he managed to escape. Reports have also been received of another illegal detention facility, allegedly set up by the police with the support of the Imbonerakure militia, in the city of Ngozi, in the northern part of the country.
The High Commissioner said he had also received “persistent reports of arrest, detention, torture, ill-treatment, enforced disappearances and assassination of certain members of the police and military by other government forces.”
Members and officers of the former Burundian Armed Forces – known as ex-FAB and which was predominantly Tutsi – appear to have been particularly targeted, including some retired soldiers.
Many soldiers interviewed by the UN Human Rights Office while in detention said that the torture or ill-treatment they endured was aimed at forcing them to confess their support for rebel groups or to provide names of other people suspected of supporting them.
Some soldiers detained at the SNR facilities claimed to have witnessed the killing of a number of their colleagues.
On 10 April, the body of an ex-FAB soldier, who had been arrested the previous day by the police, was found in Gesenyi, near Citiboke. At least five soldiers have also been reported missing following their arrest by police or military forces over the last few weeks.
Attacks by Unidentified Armed Men
Zeid also deplored the increase in attacks by unidentified armed men, reportedly linked to rebel groups.
At least 30 attacks in Bujumbura and in several provinces took place in March, killing one civilian and four soldiers. Around five civilians were also reportedly killed during a rebel attack near the Tanzanian border on 11 April.
He also condemned the targeting of members of the ruling party, the CNDD-FDD, including the assassination of a local official and member of the party who was shot at his home by unidentified armed men on 13 April in the town of Kajaga, in Bujumbura Mairie province.