Tanzania warns return of hundreds of Burundian refugees is just the start

Burundians who fled political violence at home complain of pressure tactics as 600 people are repatriated voluntarily

Nearly 600 people who fled political violence in Burundi have been repatriated voluntarily from Tanzania amid warnings from the country that it plans to return all Burundians taking refuge there, willing or not.

The UN refugee agency, the UNHCR, announced the return last week, saying that about 590 Burundian refugees had left Tanzania in buses for Gisuru, in eastern Burundi, where there is a transit centre for returning refugees, witnesses said.

Although the UNHCR has facilitated the voluntary return of almost 75,000 refugees since September 2017, under a deal with Burundi and Tanzania, the pressure to go back has been highly controversial. An estimated 225,000 Burundians still live in three camps in Tanzania.

With elections due in Burundi next year, observers have been warning of a new risk of lethal violence in a country that hundreds continue to flee each week.

Concern has been mounting since Tanzania’s interior minister, Kangi Lugola, said in August that from 1 October, all Burundian refugees would be sent back home, arguing that their home was now at peace.

Government spokesman Hassan Abbas said on Thursday that “nobody will be forced to go back” – although he nevertheless insisted that “Burundi is peaceful and they are busy preparing for elections next year”.

“Tanzania respects the international agreements on refugees and will ensure the refugees’ relocation process is handled carefully,” Abbas told reporters.

Burundi has been in crisis since 2015, when President Pierre Nkurunziza ran for a third term and was re-elected in a vote boycotted by most of the opposition.

At least 1,200 people were killed and more than 400,000 displaced in violence between April 2015 and May 2017 that the UN has said was mostly carried out by state security forces.

In August, the UNHCR said in a statement: “While overall security has improved, UNHCR is of the opinion conditions in Burundi are not currently conducive to promote returns.”

The UNHCR added: “Hundreds still flee Burundi each month, and UNHCR urges governments in the region to maintain open borders and access to asylum for those who need it.”

Burundian refugees in the camps who spoke to AFP by phone said the situation was calm and that those seeking to return voluntarily were registering with authorities.

However, they said some had chosen to flee to Uganda, Rwanda or Kenya because of pressure to return back to Burundi.

“At first they banned leaving the camp to work in the fields of Tanzanians, then they closed the shops, the bars inside the camps. Most recently they closed the markets,” said one refugee in the Nduta camp, in the north-west of the country.

The UNHCR said 590 Burundian refugees had returned on flights that it had organised with the International Organization for Migration.

The UNHCR said it had it had not promoted the repatriation programme, but was ready to help anyone who wanted to go back.

“We urge the governments of Tanzania and Burundi to respect their commitments to uphold international obligations and ensure that any refugee returns remain voluntary and that no refugee or asylum seeker is returned to Burundi against their will,” the agency added in a statement.


Peter Beaumont and agencies

The GuardianTramp

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