Women refugees in Mtabila, Tanzania face spiralling violence
To mark Refugee Week 2012 we’ve decided to highlight the work of our partner the Women’s Legal Aid Centre and draw attention to the worsening situation for women, children and men in the Mtabilia refugee camp in Tanzania.
As Tanzania is a relatively stable country in East Africa, unlike many of its neighbours, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Burundi, it has provided a safe haven for hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing conflict.
However the Government of Tanzania has tried to oust the refugees, declaring that the country should be a ‘refugee free zone’. This attitude and the measures contained in the 1998 Refugee Act have made the position of already vulnerable refugees, more than half of whom are women and children, even more precarious.
In line with this agenda the closure of camps has worsened overcrowding, poverty, illness and violence in the remaining two camps, as over 100,000 people are crammed into Mtabila and Nyaragusu. And now the 38,211 Burundi refugees (of which nearly 30,000 are women and children) in the Mtabila camp are under even more pressure.
At first the government campaigns to promote repatriation together with the Burundi government and the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) took the form of awareness-raising such as ‘go and see’ visits organized by UNHCR to show refugees how Burundi is now safe and what is being done to support their reintegration UNHCR offered incentives such as money, food and items such as bicycles and cooking pots but few refugees chose to repatriate as a result of these campaigns.
Over the last few years the Tanzanian government has steadily increased the pressure on the refugees and its measures to force people to repatriate include withdrawing services such as schools and markets, burning and destroying crops and houses, and closing sections of the camps to crowd people into smaller and smaller areas.
In spite of the conditions in the camp becoming increasingly difficult the refugees have said they do not want to go home and are afraid for their security.
Violence against women refugees
Women in both Mtabila and Nyaragusu camps face very high levels of violence. An assessment by UNHCR showed that a total of 295 incidents of rape and other forms of violence against women were reported in one six month period. The real number is likely to be much higher as many women will not report the crimes against them, perhaps because they are not aware of their rights or don’t know where to go to access support or services.
That’s where our partner comes in. The Women’s Legal Aid Centre (WLAC) provide women with support and information about their rights, but also crucially train women in the camps as paralegals so that women who have experienced violence can access support and advice within their community.
They also work to raise awareness and build support in Tanzania beyond the camps to encourage people to recognise, promote and protect the rights of refugee women, children and men and respond to cases of violence against women and other human rights abuses.
A drastic increase in violence
In recent months the push for repatriation of the people who live in Mtabila has taken a more brutal turn. The Tanzanian government has sent in the army and for a month the UNHCR withdrew food rations from 4626 people, including 919 women and 2824 children.
We have heard that people in Mtabila are traumatized by the presence of soldiers with guns as it reminds them of what they have fled. There are also reports that people have been assaulted by soldiers, including an elderly woman who was beaten when she tried to return to her garden to pick some vegetables.
This has resulted in increasing violence within the camp. WLAC are seeing twice the number of cases in Mtabila that they see in the other camp which is three times larger. In particular, WLAC has seen a three-fold increase in domestic violence in the last six months as family relations are strained and the community put under increasing pressure.
In spite of this many of the people in the camp say they would rather die there than live in the shadow of conflict. IRIN reported in February that, ‘though Burundi’s civil war ended in 2005 it remains in an acrimonious political deadlock with widespread reports of assassinations and human rights abuses since elections in 2010’.
Next week a group of NGOs will deliver a collective statement to UNHCR’s Standing Committee expressing their concerns that the forced repatriation of refugees to their country of origin is a violation of international refugee law. The deteriorating conditions in the camp also raise serious questions about the legality of the repatriation effort.
We will keep in touch with WLAC and try to support them as they struggle to combat the rising levels of violence against women in Mtabila.
Find out more about WLAC’s work and the situation in Mtabila by watching this audio slideshow produced by One World Action: