Hundreds of lone Burundian children flee to Rwanda

Teens and young children are arriving in Rwanda without parents or relatives, among those escaping Burundi’s worst violence since civil war ended in 2005

Jean-Pierre*, whose feet swing freely above the ground as he sits on a plastic chair, looks more like a young boy in his Lego T-shirt than a teenager. Two months ago, the 15-year-old left his parents and four siblings in their home province of Muyinga, in northern Burundi, and walked alone to neighbouring Rwanda.

“When I heard that they had started to kill people, I decided to leave,” Jean-Pierre said, referring to the Imbonerakure, the feared youth wing of Burundi’s ruling CNDD-FDD party. “I was afraid that I could be killed.”

Aid agencies say the number of unaccompanied minors, like Jean-Pierre, among refugees arriving in Rwanda is uncharacteristically high, putting an additional strain on the humanitarian response.

Of more than 30,000 Burundians who have fled the worst violence since the end of the civil war, in 2005, and crossed into Rwanda, around 1,200 were registered as children unaccompanied or separated from their parents, the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, said.

President Pierre Nkurunziza’s decision in April to seek a third term in office, despite a constitutional two-term limit, sparked street protests in the capital Bujumbura, and a short-lived coup. In rural areas, people said the Imbonerakure threatened those perceived to oppose the authorities, prompting many to flee.

Nearly 97,000 people have left Burundi since the beginning of April, a figure that is expected to increase as the country teeters towards controversial elections. Presidential polls were due to be held on 26 June but were postponed after the protests, in which at least 20 people were killed.

In the Mahama refugee camp in eastern Rwanda, where neatly arranged tents cling to the hillsides, 970 under-18s have arrived without their parents or obvious guardians. More than 600 are teenage boys like Jean-Pierre.

“There are more boys, reflecting a feeling that they were more at risk in Burundi,” explained Elsa Bousquet, a UNHCR child protection officer.

“I knew some children who were beaten [by the Imbonerakure]; as the eldest child in the family I had to go,” said Jean-Pierre, who set off with just 2,000 Burundian francs – a little over a dollar – given to him by his grandmother.

Rows of tents in the Mahama refugee camp in eastern Rwanda. The camp, which opened in April, hosts over 24,000 Burundian refugees.
Rows of tents in the Mahama refugee camp in eastern Rwanda. The camp, which opened in April, hosts over 24,000 Burundian refugees. Photograph: Zoe Flood

With over 24,000 inhabitants, Mahama hosts the majority of Burundians who have fled to Rwanda. Thousands more have crossed into Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The camp used to receive up to 1,200 people per day, but that number has fallen to between 30 and 40.

The explanations for why so many unaccompanied minors are on the move vary. Fear is key. Many arrivals mention the Imbonerakure militias, who have been accused of using violence against opposition supporters – charges that the government dismisses as opposition propaganda.

Women and children often seek safety while men stay behind to guard property; sometimes parents simply don’t have the means to travel themselves and so send their children away on their own.

Some people in Mahama said the Imbonerakure targets young men and boys, while others said families fear to move together because they think large groups will be stopped by officials in Burundi or at the border. Boys may also outnumber girls because it is seen to be less risky for them to travel.

Aid agencies are working to accommodate the large numbers of unaccompanied children. “We immediately try hard to find family links with others in the camp so that the children can remain in a family environment,” said Dr Saber Azam, UNHCR’s representative in Rwanda.

“Of the 700 unaccompanied or separated children who have so far been interviewed across the country for tracing purposes, over 300 have found family links,” he said, adding that the UN also tries to set up foster care arrangements for children.

A young refugee carries part of the monthly food ration that the World Food Programme distributes to all inhabitants of the Mahama refugee camp in south-east Rwanda
A young refugee carries part of the monthly ration that the World Food Programme distributes to all inhabitants of the Mahama refugee camp. Photograph: Zoe Flood

Some of the children do not know how to prepare food, or are looking after younger siblings. Others have had their possessions stolen on the way.

For Audriene*, 13, and her brother Beaudieu*, 11, the long journey to Mahama ended with a joyful reunion.

In March, their father Zachary told them to leave their home in northern Burundi and to “keep their heads down”. He had twice been badly beaten by men he says belonged to the Imbonerakure.

The children said they found work as house-helps in Rwanda’s rural areas until eventually reaching the camp in late April. “But we were living in very difficult conditions and missing our parents,” said Audriene. She and her brother were among the first arrivals in Mahama, having been transferred from another refugee centre six weeks ago.

A few days later the rest of the family arrived, having fled Burundi weeks after their two eldest children.

But while Audriene and Beaudieu were relieved to be reunited with their family, for their father the relief was tempered by a sense of loss. “I had joined a cooperative,” said Zachary. “We had received some loans to build a small business, to buy some livestock.

“We left it all behind – everything. And with everything that has happened, I just can’t imagine how we can go back.”

*Some names have been changed


Zoe Flood in Mahama, Rwanda

The GuardianTramp

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