Rwanda, often lauded internationally for its economic progress and reintegration after the 1994 genocide, is detaining and abusing street children at a holding centre in the capital, an international rights group said Monday. Two homeless boys who had been held at the holding centre, known as the Gikondo Transit Centre, confirmed to Reuters that they had been abused there, giving accounts that were similar to those compiled from 30 children in the report by the New York-based group Human Rights Watch.
Rwanda’s justice minister, Johnston Busingye, said the centre trains young people in skills including carpentry and welding and rehabilitates them from life on the streets.
“These centres are run in full compliance with law,” he said in a text message to Reuters.
Rwanda adopted a law in 2017 that defines Gikondo, open since 2005, as a rehabilitation centre for people including minors exhibiting “deviant” behaviour. Human Rights Watch said the government is arbitrarily arresting and holding people there, and subjecting them to ill treatment.
Human Rights Watch said it had interviewed 30 children aged 11 to 17 between January and October 2019 who had previously been detained at Gikondo. All but two of them had said officials at the centre beat them. Children said they had to share lice-infested mattresses with other children, access to medical care was sporadic and there was no support for rehabilitation.
President Paul Kagame, who won a third term in office in 2017, is praised abroad for steering a peaceful recovery in Rwanda since the 1994 genocide, when extremists from the Hutu ethnic majority killed an estimated 800 000 minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus.
But he has also been criticised for what rights groups say are widespread abuses, a muzzling of independent media, and suppression of political opposition.
Nelly Nshutinamagara, 12, who lives on the streets of Kigali, told Reuters he was arrested by police at night, taken to Gikondo and beaten with batons.
“They treat us badly by using batons…when one child makes a mistake, they beat us all,” he told Reuters in an interview after he was released earlier this month.
Another child, nine-year-old Francois Muhizi, told Reuters: “They lock us inside a big hall and refuse to let us out to urinate.”
Human Rights Watch urged the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, which begins a review of Rwanda’s policies on Monday, to call for the immediate closure of the centre. Rwanda ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1991.
“Rwandan authorities claim they are rehabilitating street children,” said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “But instead, they are locking them up in inhuman and degrading conditions, without due process, and exposing them to beatings and abuse.”