Asylum Betrayed: Recruitment of Burundian Refugees in Rwanda

Refugees International is deeply concerned that the civilian and humanitarian character of asylum in Rwanda is being undermined. Specifically, refugees from Burundi claim they are being recruited into non-state armed groups as part of a systematic campaign involving both Burundian and Rwandan nationals.

The activities they describe potentially amount to grave violations of international law, and could destabilize the region. Therefore as a matter of urgency, the parties to the conflict in Burundi, the Rwandan government, and the international community must all strongly reject and comprehensively prevent the recruitment of Burundian refugees.

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Burundian refugees line up for a distribution in Mahama camp, Rwanda. 

Burundian refugees line up for a distribution in Mahama camp, Rwanda. 

Recommendations

  • All parties to the conflict in Burundi must respect, and neighboring states must ensure, the civilian and humanitarian character of asylum and protect refugees from recruitment by nonstate armed actors.
  • The Rwandan government must ensure that the civilian and humanitarian character of asylum in the country is maintained. To that end, it must:
    • Ensure that all efforts to recruit Burundian refugees into armed groups – whether on or emanating from Rwandan territory, and whether committed by Burundian or Rwandan nationals – cease immediately;
    • Affirm publicly that the recruitment of refugees into non-state armed groups on its territory is a violation of Rwandan and international law;
    • Affirm publicly that refugees on its territory, in accordance with the Organization of African Union Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa, are prohibited from attacking any state member of the African Union, or engage in any activity that is likely to cause tension between Burundi and Rwanda; and
    • Cooperate with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and its humanitarian partners by providing these agencies with unencumbered access to refugees in all sites, and by respecting the confidentiality of communications between humanitarians and refugees.
  • UNHCR and humanitarian partners must:
    • Deploy additional field-based senior protection staff to Rwanda immediately, and on a permanent basis;
    • Initiate a continuous sensitization campaign that stresses the civilian and humanitarian character of refugee sites; Draft and enact a multi-sectoral strategy to ensure the civilian and humanitarian character of refugee sites which addresses, inter alia: refugee site security, protection monitoring in refugee sites during evenings, and the prevention of child recruitment; 
    • Establish a confidential complaints mechanism and referral system to address the protection needs of both individuals targeted for recruitment and family members of the recruited.
  • The UN Children’s Fund and the Special Representative of the UN Secretary General for Children Affected by Armed Conflict should work with UNHCR to provide protection for Burundian refugee children who have been recruited or otherwise affected by armed groups, in accordance with their respective mandates.
  • ˆThe UN Security Council, the African Union, and international donors must press Burundi and neighboring states to respect the civilian and humanitarian character of asylum, and must impose sanctions against individuals or entities which violate the civilian and humanitarian character of asylum.

Michael Boyce and Francisca Vigaud-Walsh visited Burundi, Tanzania, and Rwanda in September and October 2015 to assess the protection needs of displaced Burundians.