08 September 2020
The humanitarian challenges facing Burundi as it struggles to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic stem from the large number of nationals who fled the country seeking refuge in nearby countries and are now returning. According to UNHCR, as of June 2020, there were 334,000 Burundian refugees worldwide, including some 165,000 in Tanzania, 72,000 in Rwanda, 104,000 in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and 50,000 in Uganda. Between February and June 2020, 8,728 Burundians were “voluntarily” returned to the country despite the fact that repatriations were suspended during May-June because of elections in the country.
Efforts to investigate the impact that Covid-19 may be having on returnees is severely hampered by the fact that the government of Burundi has not provided much public information about the pandemic. Additionally, according to Human Rights Watch, the government has prevented doctors and nurses from responding adequately to the crisis. Since 31 March, a total of 400 Covid-19 cases, including one death, have been confirmed, according to data from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). Compounding health concerns, as of June there were reportedly 857 measle cases in one province (Bujumbura Mairie), including at the Cishmere transit centre and two refugee camps in Ruyigi and Cankuzo provinces.
While prison visits have been suspended since 1 April, several cases of Covid-19 were confirmed in Mpimba, Rumonge, and Ngozi prisons. Deaths of inmates have been reported in June. Human Rights Watch contacted an inmate from Ngozi prison, who confirmed that despite Covid-19 related deaths in the prison, sanitary measures were still not applied. The overcrowding prevents social distancing, and while some are purportedly in quarantine, they continue to use shared spaces. On 16 April, during the presentation of the National Commission for Human Rights’ 2020 report, the president of the commission revealed that the country’s prison capacity is 4,194 but that the prison occupation rate was at 273.3 percent on 27 December 2019. Of the 11,464 prisoners, 5,224 were in preventive detention, nearly 50 percent of the entire prison population. The country’s prisons do not have solitary confinement cells and often prisoners must sleep in dormitories holding more than 50 people.
In a report from 31 May, L’Association des Chrétiens pour l’Abolition de la Torture au Burundi (ACAT) said that there has been a mass incarceration of political opponents since the beginning of the election campaign in April, exasperating the already severe overcrowding problem in Rumonge Prison and Muramvya Prison. ACAT described prison conditions as inhumane and degrading. Multiple reports of physical abuse and lack of access to medical care have been documented by the organization.
- Human Rights Watch, “Burundi : Peur et répression dans la réponse au Covid-19,“ 24 June 2020, https://www.hrw.org/fr/news/2020/06/24/burundi-peur-et-repression-dans-la-reponse-au-covid-19
- United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, “Burundi: Humanitarian Snapshot,” August 2020, https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/ocha-bdi-snapshot_-_aug_2020_en.pdf
- Acat Burundi, “Rapport de Monitoring des Violations des Droits des prisonniers,“ 31 May 2020, https://www.acatburundi.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Rapport-de-monitoring-des-droits-des-prisonniers-pour-le-mois-de-Mai-2020.pdf
- L. Sikuyavuga, “Eviter un Drame dans Nos Prisons,” Iwacu Burundi, 17 April 2020, https://www.iwacu-burundi.org/eviter-un-drame-dans-nos-prisons/
- A Voter Holding Her ID with her Mouth While Washing Her Hands Before Voting in the Presidential Election in Giheta, (Berthier Mugiraneza, AP Photo, "Burundi : Peur et répression dans la réponse au Covid-19," Human Rights Watch, 24 June 2020, https://www.hrw.org/fr/news/2020/06/24/burundi-peur-et-repression-dans-la-reponse-au-covid-19)