39 Burundian Refugees Shot Dead While Protesting

Congolese military forces have opened fire on a crowd of Burundian refugees. The attack occurred last Friday, on September 15. 39 Burundian refugees were killed, 94 injured, with 57 of them critical. The shooting began with what has been reported by Al Jazeera as a peaceful protest over the detention of four Burundian refugees who feared deportation. It escalated when the army tried to disperse the group by firing shots into the air.

There have been various accounts of the event and details are murky, with the UN and Congolese government directly contradicting each other. UN refugee chief Filippo Grandi has labelled it a devastating tragedy and called for a detailed inquiry by the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). According to Al Jazeera, the government claims they were attacked by armed persons and not refugees. However, Interior ministry official Josue Boji has said that refugees overran the jail where the four Burundian refugees were being detained, overwhelming soldiers and responding to shots being fired by throwing stones. Maman Sidikou, the head of MONUSCO, said the UN’s peacekeeping mission in the country stressed that defence and security forces could resort to force “only as a last resort” and in accordance with international norms, urging “authorities to promptly open criminal investigations.”

On September 12, the DRC national army arrested four Burundian refugees because they were reportedly carrying weapons in the town of Kamanyola. Al Jazeera reported that they have since seen footage and claim the refugees were carrying sticks. After being held for two days, the refugees were moved to the general migration directorate, which is responsible for migration and the movements of the national and foreign population. Burundian refugees living in the area feared the detainees would be repatriated and handed over to the Burundian government which, under the 1951 UN Refugee Convention that the DRC has ratified, would be illegal. Burundian refugees then began protesting their detainment outside the office of the National Intelligence Agency. The New York Times and Al Jazeera have both reported that the protesting began peacefully, but took a turn when security forces fired shots to disperse the crowds. Protesters then began to throw rocks, and one refugee reportedly took a gun from a soldier and shot him dead. This is when the security forces opened fire on the crowd. The Congolese government have responded saying they were attacked by armed persons, not refugees, and that an inquiry will be opened into the incident. The UN continues to assert that the people attacked were refugees and asylum seekers who had applied for international protection. They have also called for an inquiry to be opened to establish justice for the victims.

The attack carried out by the Congolese Military Forces on Burundian refugees is disproportionate and should have been handled better. They claim that they were attacked by armed persons, but victims included a ten-year-old girl. However, it is easy to criticize the military and say that they should not have opened fire. While this is true, more preventative measures should have been taken to avoid the situation coming to a head. For a start, military forces should be trained better and have access to more resources so that they are able to peacefully de-escalate tense situations. This would require more support for the Congolese government. This is important considering refugees from around the region seek refuge in the DRC, which puts a strain on their resources.

While it is important to recognize human rights violations like these, we must not lose focus on the root cause of these issues. Having a sole focus on such events distracts from the real problem, which is the reason behind why these people left their country in the first place. We must not forget the root causes behind the conflicts in their own country, and the inability of countries like the DRC to peacefully resolve these situations because they lack the resources to do so.