Burundian refugees now 250,000

11Mar 2016
The Guardian
Burundian refugees now 250,000

President John Magufuli, the ‘Bulldozer’ did not waiver in his assertiveness when he chaired the East Africa Community Heads of State Summit last week in Arusha.

Burundian refugees at Kigoma waiting to be transported to camps

The community’s Secretariat was on the receiving side of his austerity as he grilled the body for selecting Ngurudoto Lodge, a luxurious expensive tourist resort for the meeting rather than Arusha International Conference Center, the logical cost effective option.

The body is probably not very happy that his tenure has been extended by one year in which time he has promised them it will not be business as usual. Thanks to ‘the economist’ henceforth, any increase of the EAC budget will be an uphill climb as he declared an end to wanton spending.

The Bulldozer also put his foot down when it came to endorsement of the new Secretary General saying he is not a man of protocol, he pushed for expedition of the process.

He took his counterparts behind closed doors and soon thereafter they emerged with a decision, Burundi’s Liberat Mfumukeko was appointed the new Secretary General taking over from Richard Sezibera whose 5-year tenure ends next month.

In the same line of events, he ordered that the EAC be funded by member contributions and levies on imports and exports by non-members.
Next, under his stewardship, the EAC Heads of State went ahead and launched a new East African E-passport that comes to effect as of 1st January 2017.

Another matter that he saw addressed with immediate effect was the endorsement of the world’s youngest country, South Sudan, to the EAC bringing the total number of countries in the bloc to six, a step closer to Mwalimu Nyerere’s will for a unified Africa

A man of action, President Magufuli got a lot done in but a day having cut short the otherwise two day summit (saving the regional body millions), however, one thing that could not be accomplished in a day was resolution to Burundi crisis.

Nonetheless he made a tactical move to speed up the process to a solution by appointing former Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa to facilitator the ongoing peace negotiations alongside Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni.
Meanwhile, as talks snail pace along to a solution, Burundians continue to wrangle in their civil plight evident in the swelling number of refugees that have now clocked quarter a million.

A UNHCR report
With tension remaining high in Burundi, the number of people who have sought shelter in neighbouring states has now passed the 250,000 mark, UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency notes, cautioning that people continue to flee and numbers could rise further.

UNHCR's latest figures show that 250,473 people have been registered as refugees in Democratic Republic of the Congo (21,186); Rwanda (73,926); Tanzania (131,834); Uganda (22,330); and Zambia (1,197) since early April last year, when President Pierre Nkurunziza announced plans to run for a third term, which he later won.

The average rate of new arrivals per week is more than 1,000 in Tanzania, 500 in Uganda, 230 in Rwanda and 200 in Democratic Republic of the Congo. There have been small numbers of spontaneous returns.

"Cool heads and continuing international attention are needed to avert further deterioration this year, and the right to leave the country and seek asylum should be respected," UNHCR spokesperson Melissa Fleming told a news briefing in Geneva.

"Despite recent high-level efforts to engage the government, we have not seen significant improvement in the security and human rights situation on the ground.

The deteriorating economic situation is also a cause for concern which could trigger further displacement," she added.

"Although there has been a slight lull in violence recently in Burundi, refugees arriving in the host countries continue to report human rights violations and difficulty in leaving Burundi.

We have also been receiving a growing number of refugee reports about detention and sexual and gender-based violence in transit," Fleming said.

Some 1,700 Burundian refugees have arrived in Democratic Republic of the Congo so far this year, down on the 2,051 of October last year, but still a steady flow. Many are living in poor rural areas, where conditions are harsh, and about two-thirds (14,772) are in Lusenda camp, which is nearing its capacity of 18,000.

Overcrowding is a problem in all host countries, including Tanzania, which has taken in more Burundians than any other. Nyarugusu camp hosts some 143,000 people, including almost 80,000 who have arrived since last April.

The decongestion of the camp is a priority and new arrivals go to Ndutu, while others at Nyarugusu are sent to the recently reopened Mutendeli camp. Another camp is planned at Karago, but capacity there and at Mutendeli is limited by insufficient water reserves.

In Rwanda, close to 48,000 Burundian refugees are living in Mahama camp, the largest camp in Rwanda, and more than 26,400 in Kigali and other towns.

As the insecurity persists in Burundi they are running out of savings, which will increase their need for assistance. The government, meanwhile, has clarified that it has no plans to relocate Burundian refugees and will keep its doors open.

In Uganda, about two thirds of Burundian arrivals in the past year are being hosted in Nakivale Refugee Settlement (14,876) in the South-West Region, 21 per cent in the capital Kampala, and the remainder in Kyaka II, Oruchinga and Kisoro settlements.

Most are young women and children, with a disproportionately low number of young men. Work is under way to extend settlement areas at Nakivale and other locations.

Access to water continues to be a problem and UNHCR is delivering by truck in Nakivale, which is costly and unsustainable.

As with the other asylum countries, funding is a major problem which is affecting access to education, health care, livelihoods, counselling and more, though Uganda allows people to work and travel.

UNHCR requested US$175.1 million for the Burundi humanitarian response in 2016 and has to date received US$4.7 million, or about 3 per cent.

We thank donors for their generosity to date while appealing for more urgent funding.

Tanzania’s big heart

Tanzania has offered citizenship to over 200,000 former Burundian refugees living in the country since the 1972 civil war. It is the most generous offer of naturalisation to date.

The move was lauded, as it gave refugees the possibility of full citizen rights. The move also made sense as an extension of Tanzania's founding father's vision for Africa.

Africa needed to demonstrate more generosity to Africans, former president Julius Nyerere said.

But this is not to say that local communities in the Kigoma region always took to welcoming the refugees without some hesitation.

There are some accounts that suggest Tanzanians living in Kasulu, where the Nyarugusu camp was built in 1997, held some reservations.

Similarly, not all Burundians living in Tanzania were convinced "citizenship" would solve their problems of social integration or protection in the country.

Had they not been citizens in 1970s or in the 1990s or the early 2000s when civil war and strife destroyed the lives of so many? What did citizenship offer exactly in a world carved by steep identity politics?
But still, Tanzania's move was particularly bold and also progressive.

Tough policy test

With another eruption of political violence in Burundi, it is this precise approach to refugees and asylum seekers that is being put to the test in a world of rising xenophobia in parts of Europe and nearby South Africa.

The position is tough; the Tanzanian government has admitted they didn't expect so many to arrive.

At last count, 64,000 Burundians had arrived in Tanzania, pushing the Nyarugusu camp to 200 percent capacity. There have also been health scares. Of the 31 people who died from the recent cholera outbreak, two were Tanzanians.

The people of the Kigoma region in Tanzania has been forced to adapt to harsh realities that are usually not of their own making.

A number of people living here were forced to resettle under colonial rule in the 1930s or during president Julius Nyerere's 1970 policy of villagisation, or Ujamaa.

In the sixties, it was in Kigoma where Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara launched his Congo adventure to fight the imperialists. He returned to Kigoma after seven months: a failed mission, as he called it.

Kigoma has had to pick up the pieces of the many failures across Lake Tanganyika, be it in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) or Burundi.

The DRC continues to be a toxic mix of militias and poor governance and, now, Burundi's experiment with democracy appears ill fated.

The refugees continue to arrive. Many of them have been here already. Others are now simply following the footsteps of those who once passed.

With Aljazeera commentary

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