By Millicent Zighe
Nearly half of the 200,000 Burundian refugees in Tanzania are expected to return home by the end of the year, according to a new report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Dilapidated living conditions in camps and the lack of identity documents make it difficult for refugees to access basic services, forcing at least 96,000 exiles to choose to return to Burundi. Tanzania has since revoked automatic refugee status to Burundians and closed its borders, making it difficult for Burundians to enter the country. Children born to refugees in Tanzania, for example, have no birth certificates.
An estimated 400,000 people fled Burundi into neighbouring Uganda, Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda after President Pierre Nkurunziza’s was controversially elected for a third term in 2015. The number of refugees has since reduced as some elected to return home citing unfavorable living conditions.
Child protection services have been urged to respond to inadequate numbers of child friendly spaces, lack of capacity to monitor children in foster care, and continued risks of sexual and gender-based violence as well as forced early marriages. According to the Burundi Regional Refugee Response Plan 2019 – 2020, school dropout rates are high, with less than 10 per cent of secondary school-age children enrolled. Classrooms are crowded and plagued by shortages of trained teachers. Major gaps also exist in sanitation and hygiene. Soap distribution remained inadequately low, with each household receiving a 250-gramme bar in a month.
Tanzania has been accused of imposing restrictions on refugees in Mtendeli, Nduta and Nyagurusu camps. For instance, market days have been reduced from three to one in a week, thus constraining refugees livelihoods. Refugees’ freedom of movement is also restricted. Those who fall afoul of this policy have been arrested.
Tanzanian authorities have reportedly been threatening and physically abusing refugees in camps. Living conditions have become so bad pushing many to request relocation to other countries.
Firewood is the main source of cooking fuel in camps, but it is not readily available. Refugees have to search for firewood on nearby host community land, which can often generate clashes.
The stringent conditions imposed on refugees in Tanzania are in stark contrast with the situation in Rwanda, DRC and Uganda. Tanzanian authorities have in some instances accused Burundi refugees of engaging in crimes such as theft, robbery and banditry.
In 2017, Tanzania President John Pombe Magufuli and Burundi’s Nkurunziza urged refugees to go back home. UNHCR and the two countries started a voluntary repatriation program that has since seen over 30,000 refugees go back home. By the end of 2018, UNHCR reports that 20,000 refugees had signed up for the program that targets 72,000 Burundians. UNHCR warns that the situation in Burundi still complex and therefore not ideal for return.
The refugee response plan for Burundi seeks to ensure exiles have access to territory, humanitarian assistance, opportunities for durable solutions, and self-reliance. It targets to preserve equal and unhindered access to territorial asylum and protection, promote the full enjoyment of rights and maintain the civilian character of asylum. It also hopes to enable access to essential services according to minimum international standards, ensure protection systems are strengthened and refugees and returnees are able to enjoy their full rights, specifically in regard to safety and security, child protection, protection from SGBV, and community-based protection, among other goals.