Stephanie Aglietti / AFP / Getty Images

Report: Burundi refugees in Rwanda recruited to fight

Refugees say they are intimidated into joining military training camps and allege that Rwandan authorities are involved

Burundian refugees in Rwanda say they are being forcibly recruited by Burundian opposition groups and sent to military training camps in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, allegedly with the knowledge of Rwandan security officials, according to a new report from the advocacy group Refugees International.

Unlawful recruitment of refugees has been reported for months in the Mahama refugee camp, which shelters at least 46,000 Burundian refugees fleeing political violence in Burundi. The new allegations, sourced from interviews with international officials and confidential transcripts of interviews with targeted refugees, suggest an “aggressive” scale of recruitment, including of minors, and the complicity of Rwandan authorities. 

International officials told investigators for Refugees International that recruits have been taken from the camp and sent to Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda’s Nyungwe Forest National Park, in the southwest. There, “hundreds of Burundian adult and child recruits (including girls) were reportedly housed” and given weapons training, the report said.

According to more than a dozen groups of refugees living in Mahama, recruiters began to approach potential recruits as early as May, telling them they would be fighting on behalf of Burundi's exiled opposition against President Pierre Nkurunziza. They said they were instructed to attend informational "meetings" in the camp run by one of several Burundian opposition parties, and threatened if they did not acquiesce.

Rwandan police officers were present at some of the meetings, which were held after international aid staff had left Mahama for the day, the report said. Witnesses also told international aid officials that Rwandan police officers watched as recruits who agreed to join military training boarded shuttles out of Mahama and that Rwandan military vehicles were used in some cases.

Al Jazeera was not able to reach the Rwandan Ministry for Disaster Management and Refugee Affairs in time for publication. But the minister, Seraphine Mukantabana, spoke out against the allegations in a speech during her visit to Mahama in October, accusing the refugees of “telling lies” to make their case for resettlement to another country. “We cannot accept that your presence creates problems to our country,” she said.

Mukantabana also threatened retribution against international aid workers, who have raised the issue with Rwandan officials, forbidding them from speaking with refugees after hours. “If we visit the camp during the evening and we find you in a tent with these officials," she said, "we will treat you and them as traitors."

Refugees said they were not offered any financial incentive to join the training camps. But in most cases, the recruiters aggressively intimidated them, according to the report:

“In addition to repeated in-person or phone messages from recruiters, some of the refugees said they were followed around the camp by groups of young men. Others said they were subjected to verbal and written threats, with one told his ‘medicine is on the stove’ – meaning he would be dealt with imminently – and another that he ‘will disappear into the Akagera river.’ Some of the refugees told interviewers that recruiters frightened them by pointing out that humanitarians were not present in the camps at night and thus could not protect them. Multiple refugees said they were so afraid that they slept in shelters that were not their own, or slept upright in camp showers or latrines, in order to avoid recruiters. Some younger refugees who were interviewed in Rwanda said they were too scared to attend school because adult classmates pressured them to enlist, and because senior recruiters sometimes idled outside the classrooms.”

When refugees approached Rwandan officials about their fears of reprisal, they were allegedly threatened in return. According to one recruit, a Rwandan police officer told him: “If you love your country, you will do what they say. If you come back and talk about this issue again, you will be put in jail.”

The allegations would raise a host of legal questions about the Rwandan government, which has been accused by President Nkurunziza's government of supporting the opposition. As a host country, Rwanda has a duty under international law to protect civilian refugees from military recruitment. According to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, refugee protection is “a peaceful, non-political and humanitarian act,” and therefore “it is of the utmost importance that only civilian populations benefit from the grant of asylum.”

Burundi’s most recent political crisis began in April 2015, when Nkurunziza was nominated for a third term in office. Opposition protests occasionally devolved into violent clashes with security officials, and after Nkurunziza was re-elected in July, a large continent of the opposition refused to accept his leadership and staged a coup attempt, which failed.

Since then, clashes between armed opposition groups and security forces have sent more than 220,000 citizens fleeing into neighboring countries. Earlier this month, the U.S. special envoy for Africa's Great Lakes region warned that there was a "real possibility" Burundi could return to civil war, just a decade after its 12-year conflict ended.

All around its borders, Burundian security forces and pro-government militia are reportedly detaining or beating civilians who try to flee. Their justification is national security, arguing that they are cracking down on an armed rebellion with roots in Burundi's neighbors.

Nkurunziza’s government has also formally accused Rwanda of actively facilitating the recruitment of Burundian refugees to attack his country. In October, Burundian foreign minister Alain Nyamwite said the government had “extensive information about recruitments in refugee camps...where refugees are taken for military training, and some of the trainers are Rwandans.”

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