Burundi will start repatriating 200,000 refugees from neighbouring Tanzania in October, sparking fears of forced returns among those who crossed the border to escape violence.
Hundreds of Burundians have died in clashes with security forces since 2015, when President Pierre Nkurunziza ran for a third, disputed term in office.
Over the same period, more than 400 000 fled, predominantly to Tanzania, Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo.
A former ethnic Hutu guerrilla leader, Nkurunziza came to power in 2005 at the end of a civil war in which 300 000 died. Last year he won a referendum allowing him to stay in office until 2034.
Burundi and Tanzania agreed repatriations would start on October 1, the Interior Minister in Bujumbura, Pascal Barandagiye, told reporters.
Tanzania Home Affairs Minister Kangi Lugola said it would facilitate the return of “all Burundians” because “Burundi is peaceful”, according to a video on the ministry’s Twitter feed.
‘THERE IS NO SECURITY THERE’
Burundi’s population is divided between Tutsi and Hutu ethnic groups, as is neighbouring Rwanda, where 800 000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered by Hutu extremists in a 1994 genocide.
Burundians who fled since 2015 include members of both groups.
One refugee, a man in his 40s who crossed with his family and now lives in Tanzania’s Nduta camp, said he would not be returning home.
“We heard governments agreed on forced repatriation. There is no way we can go to Burundi, there is no security there,” the man, who declined to be named, told Reuters.
New York-based Human Rights Watch says Burundi’s government does not tolerate criticism and security services carry out summary executions, rapes, abductions and intimidation of suspected political opponents.
Burundi’s ruling party denies systematic human rights violations.
In March, Burundi shut down the United Nations’ local human rights office with the interior minister accusing the UN refugee agency of turning repatriation into “a business”, criticising its requirement for refugees under 18 to be registered before repatriation,
The UNHCR said around 75000 Burundians returned home in the past two years, adding: “We assist refugees who indicate they have made a free and informed choice to voluntarily return.”
Hundreds are still fleeing every month and “conditions in Burundi are not currently conducive to promote returns,” it said, urging nations to ensure refugees were not repatriated against their will.