By Millicent Zighe
Women and girls fleeing Burundi’s political violence are subjected to sexual and gender-based attacks in camps for refugees in Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
A new report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees notes that although all identified sexual and gender-based violence survivors had received support, many cases were not reported and preventive activities are still low.
Women and girls are particularly vulnerable to a heightened risk of sexual and gender-based violence when they live in overcrowded shelters, are weighed down by traditional gender attitudes, and live in separated family situations, according to the UNCHR’s Burundi Regional Refugee Response Plan 2019 – 2020.
An estimated 400,000 refugees fled Burundi in four different directions to the neighbouring countries of Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo at the height of political violence after President Pierre Nkurunziza sought a controversial third term at the helm. UNHCR’s statistics show that Tanzania hosts some 192,160 refugees while Rwanda and DRC provide shelter to 71,490 and 43,419 refugees, respectively. Another 36,647 refugees live in Uganda.
“Sexual and gender-based violence is endemic in DRC and in the refugee sites, it is compounded by the weak justice system, low participation of women in decision making, lack of livelihoods and education opportunities,” says the UNCHR. The practice of survival sex, impunity for perpetrators, low participation of communities in the prevention of SGBV, and constant need to traverse isolated areas to collect firewood are also cited as reasons for the prevalence of sexual and gender-based violence in refugee communities.
In Rwanda, where some 71,490 Burundians live in camps for refugees, sexual and gender-based violence incidents are underreported and often result in unwanted pregnancies, school dropouts and stigmatization, putting survivors at further risk of exposure to negative coping mechanisms like survival sex and begging.
Within Mtendeli, Nyagurusu and Nduta camps in Tanzania, which host some 192,160 exiles, refugees are not allowed to engage in economic activities that would improve their livelihoods. The government banned refugees from selling telecommunication equipment and nonfood items. So inhospitable are the hosting arrangements in Tanzania that refugees complain of continued threats and physical abuse by authorities.
It is estimated that only 31,000 refugees will remain in the country by December 2020.
Children make up half of the Burundi refugee population. Many face psychological stress and are at risk of conscription into child labour. For instance, in Nyagurusu camp, children work in farms to earn money. Many have been forced to stop attending classes because of insufficient school materials, such as books, and lack of enough teachers.
Refugees in Rwanda are, however, allowed to work and can access legal assistance. UNHCR still notes that inadequate farming land has greatly hampered the refugees’ economic progress. There are also limited business opportunities between the camps and outside communities.
On the other hand, Uganda has instituted measures to incorporate refugees in its development plans. Many of them are allowed to own land and seek employment. The Ministry of Education has introduced a response plan to deal with the high number of pupils in districts hosting refugees.
In DRC, the vast majority of refugees live around South Kivu. One of the response strategies to improve the living conditions of refugees in the area has been to promote social cohesion and peaceful co-existence between refugees and host communities by implementing targeted self-reliance programmes. Nonetheless, the outbreak of Ebola in DRC is still a major threat to people in camps. These efforts are part of mandate of partners to outline response strategies and financial requirements.
There are some 35 partners working to support the four main hosting nations as well as refugees returning to Burundi. UNCHR says many of its efforts have been hampered by lack of sufficient funds. UNHCR received only 33 per cent of the $391 million budgeted for 2018. In 2019, partners supporting Burundian refugees in the region appealed for $296 million, which will be used to alleviate their living conditions by enhancing their access to asylum and enacting protection systems to ensure Burundians who seek voluntary repatriation enjoy their full rights.
President Nkurunzinza recently urged refugees and asylum seekers to return home, assuring them of their safety in Burundi. However, many refugees are unconvinced, considering that more than 200,000 Burundians have been internally displaced. Efforts by Tanzanian President John Magufuli to voluntary repatriate the refugees from Tanzania have been opposed by UNHCR, which describes the situation in Burundi as delicate, citing the rampant cases of human rights violations. Despite its reintegration programmes, Uganda has also been encouraging Burundian refugees to go back home.
UNCHR is the international agency mandated to manage refugee affairs worldwide. The agency reports that conditions in most refugee camps are dilapidated due to insufficient food and water.