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Asylum Seekers Continue to Push for Change Abroad

Protesters carry a Burundian flag in Brujumbura, Burundi. Photo: Reuters/G. Tomasevic

As a newly-initiated intern in The Advocates for Human Rights’ International Justice Program, I was unsure what to expect when I walked into my first official team meeting in May 2019. Despite this uncertainty, I quickly learned that me and my intern team’s responsibilities would not follow the traditional Devil Wears Prada-esque intern tropes of office coffee runs and administrative purgatory. Instead, much of our role would involve conducting research for UN shadow reports by delving into former and current asylum cases. 

My team’s first major project of the summer involved writing a client-based report on the human rights situation in Burundi to submit to the UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) on Burundi. After President Nkurunziza announced that he would be running for a third term in April of 2015, a violation of Burundi’s constitutionally-mandated two-term limit, Burundians took to the streets in protest. Many were kidnapped, detained, or killed. One failed coup attempt and four years later, Burundians today continue to live in fear of speaking out, lest they meet a similar fate. And after Burundi’s government forced the UN to shut down its local office in 2019, fact-finding has proven increasingly difficult.

As an advocacy organization that also provides pro-bono legal representation to asylum seekers through its Refugee and Immigration Program, The Advocates for Human Rights routinely uses firsthand information from former and current clients in advocacy reports (examples of this can be found here, here, and here). Accounts from asylum seekers who have directly witnessed and survived human rights violations can help NGOs identify patterns of abuse, identify bad-faith actors, and ultimately push for accountability on the international stage. 

Full disclosure: I had heard nothing of the situation in Burundi before joining The Advocates. So when my supervisors informed me and my fellow International Justice interns of our project, I began gathering information: reading articles, watching videos, and sifting through The Advocates’ asylum case files from Burundi. Asking individuals to recount their experiences and, in some cases, relive their trauma, requires sensitivity, awareness, and humility. My fellow International Justice interns and I spent a week drafting an interview protocol complete with questions and disclaimers. After much deliberation, the questions we ultimately decided on centered specific incidents and specific perpetrators in the aim of identifying the types of abuse and distinguishing state actors from non-state actors. In pushing for accountability through international human rights law, the difference between the two was significant.

Due to the nature of asylum law in the US, all asylum cases must have some aspects in common. Gaining asylum requires a well-founded fear of persecution in the home country, and requires that the persecution be on the basis of race, religion, nationality, social group, or political opinion. The majority of the Burundians we interviewed experienced persecution on the nexus of political opinion, race, or social group.

Yet the practice of interviewing asylum seekers is not quite so formulaic.

The process began with raking through a database to find relevant case files–”relevant” included individuals who had fled from Burundi sometime around or after 2015, since the COI’s charge only concerned conditions in Burundi after the 2015 attempted coup. After identifying clients to contact, we first sent an introductory email explaining the charge of the COI and the request for an interview, and then we called. Many numbers had gone out of service, and just as many sent us straight to voicemail. We quickly learned the importance of persistence and of follow-up. Eventually, individuals began to pick up, and as we pitched our requests for interviews, we were met with a brave and resounding chorus of ‘yes’ from former Burundians. 

Your confidentiality and safety are of utmost importance to us. The Commission of Inquiry has promised to do everything in its power to protect the victims and witnesses included in this report. Every telephone conversation began with the same reassurance. Even with individuals who had successfully sought asylum, the threat of retribution against family or friends in Burundi remained present. The disclaimer served as a reminder: the information being shared is a lived experience, and, in some cases, the danger is still real. 

In total, we interviewed five individuals about the experiences of themselves and those around them. The stories shared were uniquely painful yet thematically similar. State repression. Friends and family members who had been kidnapped. Friends and family members who had been killed. Abuse by the police. Abuse by the pro-government militant youth group, the Imbonerakure. Rape and sexual assualt. Torture. Fear. 

And an abiding air of resilience. 

Flash forward to mid-July: as the end of my 10-week long International Justice internship with The Advocates for Human Rights approached, President Trump announced a federal policy eliminating nearly all asylum protections for Central Americans and other migrants seeking refuge in the United States at the US-Mexico border by introducing a safe-third-country agreement. This agreement requires that migrants must have already applied for asylum at the first country they entered on their route to the US before applying for asylum in the US. If asylum-seekers fail to do so, the government may deport them to this “first country” before allowing their asylum case to be processed in the US. 

This policy raised the bar for entry from merely demonstrating a “credible fear” of persecution in the country of origin to a prohibitively high burden of proof aimed to severely reduce the number of asylum seekers accepted into the US. Therefore as more migrants apply for asylum, a greater percentage of cases are denied. Trump’s immigration policies also exist within the context of a heavily backlogged asylum queue where hundreds of thousands of cases dating back to 2010 remain in a processual limbo. 

The result? A deeply unreliable process of asylum that violates domestic law and fails to meet international standards–a process that gambles with human lives. After spending a summer in proximity to asylum cases, I understood that, more often than not, asylum is not a choice. Asylum is a means to survive. 

At the end of one call, following protocol, I asked a former client if she had any last questions for me. “I do have one,” said the woman, an asylum seeker who had survived and escaped sexual abuse by government forces,

“Is Burundi going to get better?” 

For a moment, I struggled to find an adequate response. Yet if she still retained her capacity to hope, so could I. And with brave voices like hers cooperating with NGOs to speak out against human rights abuses, we have no choice but to believe in a better future. 

By Tala Alfoqaha, a Mathematics & Global Studies major at the University of Minnesota.  Tala was the 2019 Don Fraser Human Rights Fellow with The Advocates’ International Justice Program.

Briefing the UN Human Rights Council on Burundi

A growing number of victims fleeing politically-based violence in Burundi have requested legal assistance from The Advocates for Human Rights in applying for asylum in the United States. The Advocates for Human Rights recently brought the experience of our clients and concerns about violations of civil and political rights in Burundi to the United Nations Human Rights Council.  The Advocates for Human Rights’ volunteer attorney Carrie Brasser delivered the following oral statement in March 2019 during an Interactive Dialogue with the UN Commission of Inquiry for Burundi.

The Advocates for Human Rights welcomes the oral briefing of the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi.

Since April 2015, the human rights crisis in Burundi has escalated in both its extent and brutality. The ruling party’s repression of suspected opponents, civil society, and the media has involved enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detention, torture and rape. State actors, including members of the police force and the Imbonerakure youth league, have acted with impunity against their victims. The indiscriminate shooting of demonstrators, targeting of journalists and activists, and aggressive reprisals against witnesses are among the many abuses suffered by citizens. These conditions have caused over 250,000 to flee this state-sponsored oppression and violence.

As a provider of legal services to asylum seekers, The Advocates for Human Rights has represented victims of violence from Burundi and documented first-hand accounts of:

  • Illegal invasions and searches of homes and businesses, including firing on civilians, looting of property, and the rape of a witness
  • The arbitrary arrest of an anti-corruption activist based on false charges, culminating in her assault and rape, and
  • The targeting of supporters of constitutional election law, as well as journalists, involving arbitrary arrests followed by brutal torture for extended periods

We commend the Commission of Inquiry for making concerted efforts to engage in monitoring and fact-finding among people who have been forced to flee the country.

These and other accounts of human rights abuses support our recommendations that the Human Rights Council:

  • Continue the mandate of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Burundi and retain the situation in Burundi on its agenda under item 4
  • Request that the Security Council impose sanctions against individuals responsible for both gross systemic human rights violations as well as the obstruction of UN mechanisms to document violations and
  • Encourage effective justice mechanisms to ensure that individuals responsible for these abuses are held accountable.

Thank you.

In 2017, The Advocates also submitted a stakeholder submission for Burundi’s Universal Periodic Review, which included direct information about human rights violations from survivors who have fled Burundi to seek asylum in the United States.  Read the full submission here.

Burundi: The Human Rights Crisis You May Not Have Heard Of

Protesters carry a Burundi flag during a protest against President Pierre Nkurunziza's decision to run for a third term in Bujumbura
Demonstrators carry a Burundian flag during a protest in Bujumbura, Burundi. Photo: Reuters/G. Tomasevic

As an International Justice Program intern with The Advocates for Human Rights, I have encountered many examples of human rights abuses throughout the world. Yet, while the recent drama of domestic politics continues to dominate the attention of American citizens, these international human rights violations go largely unreported and unaccounted for in U.S. media. The ongoing human rights crisis gripping the state of Burundi presents one such example as members of civil society continue to face politically-based violence at the hands of the ruling party.

April 2015 marked the start of a political and human rights crisis in Burundi that has claimed hundreds of lives. Violence flared following President Pierre Nkurunziza’s decision to seek a controversial third term and subsequent, political protests. Police and security forces responded by exercising excessive force and shooting demonstrators indiscriminately.

After a failed coup d’état by military officers in May 2015, the Government intensified its repression of political dissent by suspending most of the country’s independent radio stations. In addition, journalists and human rights defenders face violence and increasing restrictions on their rights to freedom of expression and association. Recently adopted legislation further limits the ability of non-governmental organizations to operate and for civil society to participate in public life. By mid-2015, most of Burundi’s opposition party leaders, independent journalists and civil society activists had fled the country after receiving repeated threats.

The human rights crisis that gripped Burundi in 2015 deepened in 2016 as government forces targeted perceived political opponents with increased brutality. The Burundian National Defense Forces (BNDF) and the Burundian National Intelligence Service (SNR)—often in collaboration with members of the ruling party’s youth league, known as Imbonerakure—committed numerous killings, disappearances, abductions, torture, rape, and arbitrary arrests against the perceived opponents of the ruling party.

For perpetrators of these crimes associated with the ruling party, there is almost total impunity. The ruling party continues to interfere with Burundi’s weak justice system and therefore these human rights abuses are rarely punished. The government’s suspected political opponents have been arrested and held for prolonged periods unlawfully. Ultimately, an average of more than one thousand people fleeing the violence escaped to nearby Tanzania per day in 2016 to join the 250,000 already spread across Eastern Africa.

The Advocates’ Refugee and Immigrant Program provides legal representation to individuals seeking asylum.  The Advocates has received direct information about suppression of political opinion in Burundi from survivors fleeing human rights abuses in the country to seek asylum in the United States. Our clients share stories of being accused, often arbitrarily, of supporting anti-government protests. They report police and Imbonerakure members searching their homes, looting their businesses, and arresting, beating and interrogating them and their family members. While each client’s case is different, their experiences confirm that the legal system and policies in Burundi are failing to provide individuals with adequate protection from politically-based violence.

In July, The Advocates for Human Rights submitted a stakeholder’s report to the Universal Periodic Review, identifying specific measures that the Burundian Government should enact to address political suppression in the country.

First, Burundi should combat impunity by systematically and promptly carrying out investigations of criminal activity committed by government affiliates and ensure appropriate compensation for such crimes. In the previous UPR, the Government of Burundi accepted recommendations to continue efforts toward combatting impunity including the establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. While the Commission was established in 2016, serious concerns exist regarding the Commission’s ability to fulfill its mandate with the expanded use of temporary immunities which have de facto become permanent amnesty schemes. Burundi should then establish an independent mechanism for investigating complaints of torture or ill-treatment at the hands of members of police or security forces to ensure accountability for perpetrators of human rights violations.

Second, the Government should take the necessary steps to ensure that legal systems and policies are in full compliance with Burundi’s international obligations with respect to freedom of expression. During its last UPR, Burundi rejected 15 recommendations related to freedom of expression and association, as well as protections for human rights defenders. Burundi must afford journalists and human rights defenders the freedom to carry out their work independently and without fear of persecution or intimidation.

Overall, Burundi is failing to meet its international obligations to investigate and prosecute political-based violence perpetrated on behalf of the ruling party. Security forces, intelligence services, and Imbonerakure members are repeatedly identified as responsible for extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, abductions, arbitrary arrests and detention, torture and ill-treatment, and sexual violence. The Burundian Government must act to combat impunity and protect civil society members from such human rights violations.

With the ongoing human rights crisis gripping the state of Burundi, members of civil society continue to face politically-based violence at the hands of the ruling party. Unfortunately, these human rights violations continue to go largely unreported and unaccounted for in U.S. media. Although American domestic politics seem to dominate the current political discourse, we all need to remain vigilant and afford these international, human rights violations the attention they deserve.

By April Will, a second-year J.D. student (class of 2019) at the University of Minnesota Law School. She is a 2017 summer intern with The Advocates’ International Justice Program.  

 The Advocates’ stakeholder submission to the UN Human Rights Council for Burundi’s Universal Periodic Review includes direct information about human rights violations from survivors who have fled Burundi to seek asylum in the United States.  Read the full report here.

Related post:  Giving our asylum clients from Burundi a voice at the United Nations