Botswana: Asylum-seekers accuse prison officials of ill-treatment and sexual assault
Refugees detained for long periods at the Francistown Centre for Illegal Immigrants (FCII) have accused prison officials of a pattern of ill-treatment including regular assaults and a failure to act on reports that boys as young as nine have been sexually abused. By Joel Konopo and Ntibinyane Ntibinyane for INK CENTRE FOR INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALISM.
Former FCII inmates now held at the Dukwi refugee camp in northern Botswana also allege that :
• they and their children were confined alongside prisoners convicted of serious crimes, including murder and rape;
• at least two asylum-seekers died after being denied adequate health care; and
• army, police and intelligence operatives violently suppressed a protest by asylum-seekers, beating even children and a pregnant woman.
Photo: Rejected asylum seekers were accommodated in makeshift tents in Dukwi Refugee Camp. Photo: Supplied
One consequence of the asylum-seekers’ lengthy internment is that close to 200 children of school-going age have not seen the inside of a classroom for two years.
The government has issued a blanket denial of all the allegations.
The permanent secretary for justice, defence and intelligence, Segakweng Tsiane, said the alleged abuses had not been mentioned to the officials who processed the asylum applications.
Many of the refugees have fled war and explosive ethnic rivalries in the Great Lakes region, where more than a million people have been displaced over the past two years, according to the International Red Cross.
The refugee influx into southern Africa has been particularly spurred by militia-based violence in Democratic Republic of Congo, particularly its eastern most province, Kivu (See sidebar).
Xenophobic attacks in South Africa have also swollen refugee numbers.
When scores of asylum-seekers crossed into Botswana in July 2015, their application for refugee status was swiftly refused, allegedly on the urging of senior officials in the Office of the President responsible for refugee policy.
They were interned at the FCII in Francistown, northern Botswana, which began operating in 2002 as a holding facility for illegal immigrants but over time came to serve as a conventional prison for criminal offenders.
They now see themselves as being doubly victimised – by human rights abuses in their countries of origin and by Botswana, which they chose as a refuge because of its good human rights record and reputation for respecting civil liberties.
The spotlight fell on the centre in July 2017 when 164 refugees petitioned the Francistown High Court to release them and order the government to facilitate their return to their countries of origin.
Complaining of “unbearable conditions” at the centre, they argued that they had been unlawfully detained beyond the 28 days permitted under refugee law.
The court upheld their plea, ordering the transfer of about 360 asylum-seekers and their family members to the Dukwi refugee camp, which offers educational facilities for children and allows some freedom of movement.
Four months later this was overturned on appeal. A panel of five judges led by Judge President Ian Kirby found that the failed asylum-seekers were illegal immigrants who were not protected by the Botswana’s constitution or entitled to the privileges of “recognised” refugees.
Kirby, a friend of President Ian Khama, ruled that a failure to uphold this distinction “could result in an uncontrollable influx of illegal immigrants from neighbouring and less stable countries”.
On the lower court’s assertion that it was international best practice to hold illegal immigrants separately from the general prison population, Kirby said this was not Botswana law.
He also found that legislation set no term for the detention of failed asylum-seekers, as repatriating them involved “diplomatic exchanges that could take an extended period”.
However, the judge agreed that the FCII was a prison, which the government lawyers had denied.
In a four-month investigation of conditions in the FCII, the INK Centre for Investigative Journalism spoke to about 50 former detainees who at that stage were still living at the Dukwi camp.
Apparently fearing they would be relocated to the FCII, all but one of them fled the camp in the wake of the appeal court judgement.
They are thought to have crossed into Namibia, Zimbabwe and South Africa.
Before they disappeared in early December last year, they were living in tents and using pit latrines, while the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the Botswana Red Cross and other charities provided them with food, shelter and medical care.
For 16 year-old Selestin Ekima of South Kivu in the DRC, returning to the Francistown centre was not an option. “I would rather kill myself,” he told INK, a day after the Kirby judgment.
Photo: 16-year old Selestin Ekim was prepared to commit suicide following a Court of Appeal judgment that called for their imprisonment at Francistown Centre for illegal immigrants. Photo: Supplied
The ex-inmates alleged that they had all suffered degrading treatment at the hands of the FCII warders.
They alleged that this included assaults, sometimes for the entertainment of the prison staff, but also in retaliation for complaints about the length of their detention and that they were not kept informed about how their cases were progressing.
The refugees told INK that on October 15 2015 the increasingly angry and despondent asylum-seekers staged a protest at the centre. “We wanted to know when we were getting out of prison,” one said.
They alleged that the prison authorities reacted by calling in the police, army and intelligence directorate to quell the demonstration.
“Women and children were severely beaten – even children as young as a year old and a heavily pregnant woman were not spared. It was a sorry sight – I had never seen anything like it,” said Benjamin Katumbi from the DRC.
The alleged instigators were sent to Francistown maximum security prison as a punishment. “I spent 10 days there, over and above the beatings I suffered at the hands of the security officers, I lost a front tooth in the beating,” said Abrizak Abdul, a Somali.
Manyempudu Bahati Ghadi (30) was also sent to the maximum prison as an alleged instigator. There, he says, convicted criminals repeatedly sodomised him over more than two months. He counts himself lucky that he did not contract HIV/Aids, as his attackers used no protection.
Ghadi said abuse at the FCII was a constant occurrence. “The first time I was assaulted in 2014, I suffered a serious neck injury that resulted in me having to wear a neck collar for five months,” he alleged.
Photo: Manyempudu Bahati Ghadi is nursing a spinal injury after he was allegedly attacked by security operatives. He also alleges that he was gang raped by convicted inmates. Photo: Supplied
He said he had been tortured or beaten on three occasions since 2013, when he first arrived at the facility. Ghadi is nursing “loss of lumbar lordosis” and “degenerative changes of the lumbar spine”, according to his medical reports, which INK has seen. He walks with crutches.
Exode Kiza fled ethnic violence in his native Rwanda, escaping with his partner and eight-month baby after his family threatened to kill him for marrying a “Banyamulenge”, a Congolese Tutsi with Rwandese roots.
Kiza alleges that he was treated as a prisoner rather than as a refugee at the FCII, and that the warders there subjected him to regular beatings and monthly searches.
‘Lured into sex’
Some inmates gave accounts of how convicted criminals at the FCII targeted boys, using food to lure them into sex. An 11-year-old boy, whose identity cannot be revealed, said a convicted criminal used food to lure him to his cell where he raped him.
“I shouted for help but no one came to my rescue,” he said. When he reported the incident to the prison warders he was told to go away.
The prison had taken no action to protect the children, the former inmates alleged. The boy’s mother said she found her son’s experience particularly painful given the violence the family was subjected to in the DRC two years earlier.
She said her husband had been murdered in the presence of their two sons. “I was later gang-raped in front of them. And now I have to deal with the fact that my son was also raped in prison here in Botswana,” she said, in tears.
The ex-inmates alleged that convicts hired by the centre to prepare food for the asylum-seekers often used food to bribe young boys.
“Those who agreed to sleep with the convicts were often rewarded with more food, while those that refused got no food,” said James Katumbi, an asylum-seeker who has spent three years at the FCII.
Family members also claim that the death of two refugees was the result of medical neglect. Kashindi Bawili a 33-year-old Burundian national and hypertension patient, collapsed and died on December 8 2015 a few months after arriving at the detention Centre.
Members of his family, who were also his cellmates, said that before his death he complained that he was not receiving medication for his condition.
“Minutes after he collapsed, I asked the prison warders to be allowed to accompany him to the hospital, but the request was denied,” said his uncle, Tambwe Mbuku Simon.
“We only learned [of his death] few days later when we were issued with his death certificate.” The certificate gives the cause of death as “cerebrovascular accident or stroke”.
Bawili left two sons who were granted refuge by the government. “Immediately after the two kids were granted refuge they were taken away from us by the government,” said Simon. “To this day we don’t know where they are.”
Kiji Molondela, 30-year-old asylum seeker from DRC, died in September 2016 when he did not receive adequate treatment for a liver condition, according to his relative, Steve Manu.
Photo: Kiji Molondela died in jail after he was allegedly refused medical treatment for his liver condition. Photo: Supplied
Molondela’s former cellmates said that he arrived in Botswana in 2015 after fleeing xenophobic violence in South Africa. They allege that despite his pleas to the prison officials that his condition needed urgent attention, nothing was done to assist him.
“He was only taken to the doctor when it was too late. The prison officials just didn’t care,” said Manu.
INK was told that several cases of abuse have been reported to the Botswana authorities and to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Gaborone.
In response to inquiries, the UNHCR did not address specific issues raised by the refugees, but instead commented that “the detention [in prison] of the asylum seekers and refugees has a serious and lasting effect on individuals and families”.
A well-placed government source also said tensions between the UNHCR and the government have adversely affected the interests of asylum-seekers. In particular, the government is said to have been angered by a UNHCR decision to relocate its regional office to Pretoria in South Africa.
With fewer than 3 000 refugees, both Botswana and Namibia fall below the UNHCR threshold for a permanent office.
A senior regional protection officer is said to have been denied permission to enter FCII, heightening tensions. It is understood that the UNHCR has now abandoned plans to relocate.
‘It’s all lies’
At a press conference, permanent secretary for justice Tsiane denied that the asylum-seekers were being kept in a prison and that they were constantly subjected to abuse.
“What I can say is that it is not true. Yes, they share the same campus [as ordinary convicts] but the structures are divided. Convicted prisoners are confined to the cells but asylum-seekers are not,” said Tsiane.
However, she conceded that convicts are used to prepare and serve food to the refugees, but insisted that the two groups do not eat in the same area.
Tsiane confirmed that family members, including children, are separated from each other at the centre, but said this is a precaution to prevent men and women sharing facilities.
She described the allegations of abuse as “fabrications” that were not consistent with what the asylum-seekers told government officials who reviewed their asylum applications.
“Some of them told us that they sustained some of the wounds in their home countries. But we are not surprised that they are now turning around to allege that they were beaten by prison officials here. It’s all lies, blue lies,” she said.
“If there is evidence that our people abused the rejected asylum-seekers, we will investigate and take appropriate action. We don’t condone abuse – the prison regulations are clear.”
Tsiane added that the prison authorities had never called in members of the police, defence force or intelligence directorate to assault asylum-seekers who were protesting against their conditions. “That has never happened; it’s a lie,” she said.
She said the government is working with the authorities in the DRC to repatriate the remaining 134 refugees whose applications for asylum were rejected. DM
SIDEBAR: 'I was so humiliated'
In the dead of night in mid-2015, four armed men in military uniforms barged into Awezaye Msimbwa’s hut after smashing down the door. When her husband, Elias Emmanga fled, they fired several shots. One bullet hit Msimbwa’s sister, who died on the spot. The armed men then took took turns in raping Msimbwa in front of her six children.
The “soldiers” – who could have been members of the Congolese army or rebel militiamen – also brutally assaulted her husband. The following morning, after burying her sister, she knew she had to get out.
Msimbwa comes from the small town of Uviya in Kivu, the eastern-most province of the Democratic Republic of Congo. In 2015 there was a resurgence of lawlessness and ethnic violence in Kivu, which has become notorious as the world’s rape capital.
Early in 2015 United Nations and Congolese troops mounted an offensive on Hutu extremists in the province, while thousands fled fighting among rival militias.
The ethnic violence in the region had already taken its toll on Msimbwa’s family. After the death of Msimbwa’s father, a fight over the inheritance quickly took on an ethnic complexion, with her paternal relatives arguing that her mother was not entitled to the inheritance because she was Tutsi.
Escalating conflict climaxed in the killing of her mother, who was hanged.
Msimbwa and her traumatised husband and children escaped to Luvungi, a remote thatched-roof village on the edge of Lake Tanganyika. The “soldiers” followed her and assaulted her husband again.
She knew it was time to look for safety outside her country of birth. A family member helped her and her traumatised husband and children sail across Lake Tanganyika to Tanzania.
In August 2015 they arrived at Kazungula border, in the far north of Botswana, and were relieved to be taken to the Francistown Centre for Illegal Immigrants (FCII), where they hoped to obtain refugee status.
But as the weeks turned into months, Msimbwa wondered whether they would ever escape the prison-like condition there.
For two years, she was separated from her husband and sons and handcuffed whenever she was taken to see a doctor at Nyangabgwe hospital. On the medical card, the authorities wrote “prisoner”.
“We grew impatient and started asking why we are being kept alongside convicts,” she said.
Msimbwa said prison warders often humiliated and assaulted FCII inmates, especially when they inquired about prospects of being relocated to the Dukwe refugee camp.
“We were stripped naked by men in military uniform and beaten,” she said, sobbing. “I felt so humiliated.”
For no other apparent reason than to inflict petty humiliation on them, male guards would instruct them to flush the toilet after they had evacuated.
Female guards, she said, would tell them to dispose of their used sanitary towels.
“It was normal for guards to point their gun at young boys and say they will kill them,” Msimbwa said.
She said young boys sharing cells with male asylum-seekers and convicts would refuse to return to cells in the evening, fearing they would be sexually abused.
“All the mothers could do was try assure them that nothing would happen to them. We were powerless,” she said.
The Botswana government has denied all claims of mistreatment at the centre. DM
*This article was produced by the INK Centre for Investigative Journalism, in association with the amaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism.
Photo: Asylum-seeker lawyer Morgan Moseki (with green shirt) with his clients in Dukwi refugee Camp. Photo: Supplied