Fear and Tension as Tanzania wants to send back Burundian refugees

On 27 August 2019, Tanzania announced it would send back all Burundian refugees on its soil from 1st October, saying it was working with the UN to secure their return. However, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) issued a statement that insisted any returnees should go home voluntarily.

According to Tanzanian government figures, over 200,000 Burundians have fled to Tanzania. Many arrived after a political crisis erupted in Burundi in 2015. Tanzanian Interior Minister Kangi Lugola said, “In agreement with the Burundian government and in collaboration with the High Commissioner for Refugees, we will start the repatriation of all Burundian refugees on 1st October.”

“Under this agreement, it will be 2,000 refugees who will be repatriated every week until there are no more Burundian refugees in Tanzania,” he said. Lugola was speaking after he and Burundian Interior Minister Pascal Barandagiye on Sunday went to one of the refugee camps where they made the announcement of the return to the refugees themselves.

Tanzania has long been held up as a safe haven for refugees in the region. There’s a long history of refugees from Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Mozambique seeking refuge and safety there. Burundians have been seeking refuge in Tanzania since 1960, with major waves of displacement happening in 1972, 1988, 1993, and 2015. This was due to several civil wars and genocidal violence.

Burundi was plunged into a crisis in April 2015 when its president, Pierre Nkurunziza, whose regime has been widely accused of rights abuses, declared he would seek a third term in office.  He was re-elected in July the same year, but the unrest sparked by his announcement, followed by a crackdown, traumatized the country.

At least 1,200 people died and prompted more than 400,000 people fled their homes, according to the International Criminal Court (ICC), which has opened an inquiry into alleged crimes against humanity.

Interviews with Burundian refugees revealed that if they were not a member of the leading party they faced violent persecution. They shared personal accounts of torture and rape by the Imbonerakure, the youth wing of the ruling party, and of disappearances and executions of family members.

There’s now a total of about 342,867 Burundian refugees and asylum seekers in Tanzania that are mostly settled in three refugee camps: Nyarugusu, Nduta and Mtendeli.

Lugola warned that Tanzania would not brook any interference in the repatriation accord.He said he had “information whereby people, international organisations, are deceiving people, telling them there is no peace in Burundi.”

“It’s not true — Burundi is at peace and the refugees should go home,” he said. The UNHCR, in a statement sent to AFP, said: “While overall security has improved, UNHCR is of the opinion conditions in Burundi are not currently conducive to promote returns.”

“However, we are assisting refugees who indicate they have made a free and informed choice to voluntarily return. Nearly 75,000 refugees have returned to Burundi since Sept 2017, citing the wish to return to their houses and farms, and to reunite with family.”

The UNHCR statement pointed to the “commitment” of the governments of Tanzania and Burundi “to uphold international obligations and ensure that any returns are voluntary in line with the tripartite agreement signed in March of 2018.”

The March 2018 deal, gathering Tanzania, Burundi and the UNHCR, covers refugees who wish to return on a voluntary basis.

What do the prospects look like for the refugees once they’re back in Burundi?

Through current and previous research done on Burundian refugees who repatriated and then returned to Tanzania, there is a complex matrix of challenges that they face. These include hunger, the inability to access land and shelter, and a shortage of medicine.

There are also safety concerns. Today the Burundian government controls the political space and refuses to engage in dialogue with opposition parties. While there is less open violence, refugees still fear going back and for some, that’s with good reason.

With the closing migratory space in Tanzania, those who won’t be able to safely stay in Burundi will have to seek other destinations of refuge.

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