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UNHCR deplores forced returns from Uganda, police brutality

Briefing notes

UNHCR deplores forced returns from Uganda, police brutality

16 July 2010

UNHCR deplores this week's forced returns of Rwandans from Uganda. On Wednesday 14 July, Ugandan police mounted an operation to round up and deport some 1,700 people from the Nakivale and Kyaka refugee settlements in southwestern Uganda.

In the Nakivale settlement, Rwandese asylum-seekers were assembled on the pretext that they were to be informed of the results of their asylum claims. Panic spread among the group when police intervened, firing shots. Force was used to push people onto trucks. They were then driven across the border to Rwanda where they arrived the following morning at 2:00 a.m.

In the Kyaka settlement, food distribution at a WFP warehouse was used as the pretext for the round-up. Once in the building, the group was surrounded by armed men and police. Those who did not manage to escape were forced onto waiting trucks. Many were not permitted to take their personal belongings with them.

The operations resulted in the deaths of two men who jumped off trucks en route to Rwanda. Children were separated from their parents. Twenty-five people who were not among the deported were injured, some from police beatings. Among the injured were six pregnant women who were treated at a local hospital and then released. UNHCR is interviewing the injured and trying to trace those separated from their families in the deportation.

Although UNHCR was broadly aware of an agreement between the two countries to return failed asylum seekers, we were not informed of the timing and the nature of this operation. At the outset, UNHCR staff who were present in the settlements were asked to leave the scene.

Although the operation was aimed at failed asylum seekers, we have since received confirmation that recognized refugees were among those returned. In Kyaka, for example, a woman told us that her two children were among the group deported despite the fact that she and her family were fully recognized refugees. We are also trying to establish if refugees of other nationalities might have also been deported in the confusion.

UNHCR remains concerned about further deportations amid reports from refugees that police had threatened to return to Navikale and Kyaka to deport all those who escaped.

The return of refugees or asylum seekers whose applications for asylum have not been properly and finally adjudicated should only be undertaken voluntarily and in conditions of safety and dignity. We called upon the Ugandan authorities to halt the operation as soon as we became aware that it was under way. We have reiterated that there should be no further such returns contrary to the principles of national and international refugee law. We have underlined that anyone deserving international protection be allowed to remain in Uganda.

Since the beginning of this year 3,320 Rwandans have filed for asylum in the country. Ninety-eight per cent were rejected in the past six months. UNHCR is concerned that asylum applications are not being determined properly and fairly. We have been, and will continue to address this issue with the Ugandan authorities.

In Rwanda meanwhile, we have received confirmation that the deported people were taken to Rukomo transit center in Byumba province. The transit center, which has not been used for a year has capacity for a maximum of 500 persons and lacks water and adequate sleeping space. As a result, the deportees reportedly slept out in the open without food or clean water. UNHCR is seeking access.