By Waceke Njoroge
More than 60,000 refugees have voluntarily returned to Burundi this year, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
This is seen as a sign of success for the 2021 Joint Refugee Return and Reintegration Plan launched at the beginning of the year, and which outlines the requirements of 19 humanitarian and development partners to support the returnees and help them reintegrate into society.
The plan, to be implemented between January and December 2021, aims to support sustainable solutions for returning refugees. It contains both humanitarian and development-oriented components, and is designed to support the safe and dignified return home of Burundian refugees in the sub-region and beyond, and to promote their resilience and sustainable reintegration.
It aims to help reintegrate returnees with the community and offer them support as they find a footing again in Burundi.
It also boosts the fortunes of the assisted voluntary return programme, which began in 2017 and has seen over 180,000 Burundian refugees return home, with a notable increase in numbers since July 2020, after the country’s national elections.
The bulk of the refugees, about half the number, are returning from Tanzania, with the rest coming from Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Kenya and, since the beginning of October, Uganda.
The most recent convoy carrying 343 Burundian refugees returning from Uganda at the end of October 2021 was well received, with United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) personnel handing them household items and cash assistance to help them restart their lives back home.
The government of Burundi has said it is committed to ensuring that returnees are able to re-establish themselves into their communities by promoting their economic and social integration through its institutional body, the Directorate General for Repatriation, Resettlement, Reintegration of Returnees and War Displaced Persons.
But it is not so rosy for some of the refugees who face discrimination, threats, and even death once they return home.
The threats stem from the country’s long history of conflict. Burundi plunged into a widespread political, human rights, and humanitarian crisis when then President Pierre Nkurunziza announced his decision to run for a controversial third term in 2015, triggering protests. Following a failed coup by military officers in May 2015, the government intensified its crackdown on protesters, pushing over 400,000 to flee the country. Human rights abuses have continued, particularly against real or perceived members of the opposition.
Burundian intelligence services, security forces, and members of the ruling party’s youth league, Imbonerakure, have been accused of killing, disappearing, and torturing real or perceived political opponents and people suspected of having ties with Burundian rebels in neighbouring DRC.
Some observers have attributed the hostility directed towards the returning refugees to land and property ownership disputes. The people who have taken over the land formerly owned by the refugees are not willing to move away. Refugees suspected of supporting the opposition fare even worse.
And for many refugees, it is a case of damned if you do, and damned if you don’t, for life in some of the refugee camps has not been a walk in the park. According to Human Rights Watch, conditions in the camps in Tanzania are deplorable due to lack of funding of aid operations for Burundian refugees in the region. Food rations were cut between August 2017 and October 2018. Refugees were banned from leaving the camps, including to find work or firewood, and those who disobeyed faced increased violence. Tanzanian officials stepped up pressure on refugees to return to Burundi and insecurity increased, sometimes perpetrated by the Imbonerakure.
The refugees’ concerns were addressed in Geneva on April 13, 2021 by UN human rights experts, who asked the governments of Tanzania and Burundi to respect the rights of the refugees and asylum seekers who have fled Burundi due to enforced disappearances, torture, forced returns, and repression.
Growing anxiety over their safety in Tanzania has driven many to return to Burundi out of fear rather than a genuine willingness to return to their country of origin.
“It is extremely discouraging that since the government announced in August 2020 that an investigation into the disappearances was underway, no results have been made public yet,” Human Rights Watch said. “The government of Tanzania is aware of the situation and must take all necessary measures to immediately stop and remedy the violations.”
Refugees narrated how they were taken away by Tanzanian police and subjected to enforced disappearance and torture before being refouled or coerced into signing up for “voluntary return”. Some said they were interrogated about their presumed affiliation with armed groups, possession of weapons, and their activities in the camps. Others were asked for cash bribes to secure their release.
Tanzanian authorities have had a chequered relationship with Burundian refugees. Human Rights Watch criticised an August 2019 agreement signed by Burundi and Tanzania, stating that the presence of refugees in Tanzania had created an illusion to the international community that Burundi was not peaceful. The pact required refugees to return to their country of origin “whether voluntarily or not” by December 31, 2019. The UNHCR asked Tanzania not to pressure refugees “directly or indirectly to influence their decision to return”.
The agreement contravened the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1969 African Refugee Convention, which prohibit refoulement, that is, the return of refugees to places where their lives, physical integrity, or freedom would be threatened. Refoulement occurs not only when a refugee is directly rejected or expelled, but also when indirect pressure is so intense that it leads people to believe that they have no option but to return to a country where they face a serious risk of harm.