Abuse of Burundi women refugees in refugee camps (09/10) - (Dar Es Salaam) Widespread sexual and domestic violence against Burundi women refugees in Tanzania has left many of the women battered, traumatized and fearful for their lives because the U.N. refugee agency is not doing enough to protect them, a human rights group said Tuesday. In a report based on research conducted in Tanzania in May-June 1998 and October-November 1999, New York-based Human Rights Watch said it documented the failure of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and the Tanzanian government to address effectively the violence against women refugees. The rights group said the lives of Burundi women refugees were in danger in their homes as well as in the camps in general, which were set up six years ago when Burundians fled violence in their own country. When Burundi women fled the internal conflict there, they expected to find safety and protection in the refugee camps, said Chirumbidzo Mabuwa, author of the 60-page report. Instead, they simply escaped one type of violence in Burundi to face other forms of abuse in the refugee camps in Tanzania. At its headquarters in Geneva, UNHCR acknowledged the problem. We know there is a problem, and there is a substantial problem, spokesman Kris Janowski said. We are working the the Tanzanian authorities, especially the judicial system, to sensitize them to cases of rape and to increase the number of people who are prosecuted and punished. But he said the primary reponsibility lay with the Tanzanian government and local authorities, and UNHCR can only offer training and counseling. It was not immediately possibile to obtain comment from Tanzanian officials. The seven-year civil war in Burundi has driven an estimated 1 million people into internal displacement or across the border into Tanzania. More than 200,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed since 1993 in attacks by Burundis Tutsi-dominated army and Hutu rebels. The war began when Tutsi paratroopers assassinated the countrys first democratically elected president, a Hutu. A peace accord was signed Aug. 28, but the government and rebels have still not agreed on a cease-fire. The report said the U.N. agency only began addressing the problem of violence against women refugees last year under pressure from the refugees themselves and after the intervention of human rights groups. Important lessons must be learned from the mistakes in Tanzania, Mabuwa said. UNHCR and the host country must be proactive in assessing the protection needs of the refugee women from the very start of the refugee emergencies. The rights group cites a May 1999 report by U.S-based Refugees International that says one in every four Burundi women refugees in Tanzania had been the victim of rape or serious sexual harassment. The Human Rights Watch report also criticized the Tanzania government for its failure to enforce its laws punishing rape and assault cases. Tanzanians poor record on ensuring the justice system protects women victims of violence is not exclusively a matter of resources, but also a question of will power, Mabuwa said. Tanzanian police officers interviewed by Human Rights Watch did not regard domestic violence as a crime. Rather than investigate reports of domestic violence, typically police simply referred the victims to UNHCR and other organizations for conselling. The report said UNHCR has now initiated programs to protect women in the refugee camps. While we commend the steps that UNHCR is now taking to protect women in the refugees camps, there are still critical gaps in its program. There is a dearth of consistent monitoring, the follow-up to cases is ad-hoc, and UNHCR staff roles are still ill-defined.
This page was last updated on 18 December 2000.