By Millicent Zighe
More than half of all Burundian children need humanitarian assistance, latest findings by the United Nations International Children Education Fund (UNICEF) now show.
The deteriorating security situation in Burundi has been cited as the main reason that has triggered the crisis which affects 58% of all children in the country.
Moreover, the situation has been aggravated by natural disasters and epidemics including malaria and cross-border Ebola from the Democratic Republic of Congo.
According to UNICEF, a total of 347,110 people, half of whom are children have sought refuge in neighboring countries. Although some have opted to return home through a repatriation program spearheaded by UNHCR and host nations, they end up facing economic hardships due to lack of reintegration programs. As things stand, it is been nearly impossible for returnees to start their lives afresh without humanitarian aid.
Poverty inflicted by the low-grade conflict that arose from President Nkurunziza’s controversial run for a third term of the presidency in 2015 has pushed many children to the streets where they are forced to fend for themselves. As a result, many risk arrests, detention and even torture in the hands of state security agents and Imbonerakure, a youth militia linked to the ruling party.
The prison condition is so dire that inmate children often end up suffering from psychological trauma. In many instances the problem goes undetected due to the country’s efforts at curtailing press freedom. UNICEF has managed to successfully offer legal aid to children accused of petty crimes. A total of 395 children have since been released through the program.
The education sector has also been affected by the low-grade conflict. Children are forced to walk miles to access schools. Most returnees often fail to attend classes during the transition period. This has prompted Burundi government to work on integrating the returnees into the already over-burdened education sector. UNICEF has also rehabilitated and constructed new classes to help resolve the problem. At least 600 children in Ruyigi and Muyinga provinces have already benefitted from the program.
Poverty in the country has greatly hampered the health sector with half of the population currently infected with malaria. As of June 2019, the disease has killed at least 1800 including children. Burundi has declined to declare the epidemic a national disaster further exacerbating the situation. In DRC Congo refugees are said to be in high risk of exposure to Ebola which has affected some areas. Returnees have had difficulties in accessing in medical facilities as many can’t afford to pay for health care services. Additionally, lack of sanitary facilities has also posed a major health risk to small children in the country.