Asylum system in Burundi established with UNHCR's support

News Stories, 16 April 2009

© UNHCR/A.Kirchhof
A UNHCR refugee status determination specialist (left) trains a staff member of Burundi's new asylum office in interview techniques.

BUJUMBURA, Burundi, April 16 (UNHCR) Burundi, an important host country for refugees over the past four decades, has just established a specialized office for asylum with help from the UN refugee agency. The development comes a year after the country passed its first asylum law.

"The refugee agency welcomes these important steps towards improving refugee protection in Africa's Great Lakes region," said Bo Schack, the UNHCR representative in Burundi. "The government will now be clearly in the driver's seat," he added.

The cabinet approved the creation of the National Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons on April 2 and the new body started interviewing asylum seekers on Tuesday. It will be responsible for the 27,800 refugees and asylum seekers living in camps or urban areas in Burundi.

"The authorities will in the medium term deliver all documents to refugees and asylum seekers themselves. Today, this is still partly in UNHCR's hands," Schack explained. "We also hope that once the new asylum office is fully operational, Burundi's asylum procedure will become quicker."

In its dealings with asylum seekers, Burundi has referred to laws governing the entry and stay of foreigners. Decisions on asylum claims have been made by non-specialists. There is a backlog of some 5,000 cases awaiting a decision, some of them years old, because of the slow pace of processing the applications.

The UN refugee agency had previously supported the government in drafting a new legal framework for dealing with asylum seekers and refugees the country's first asylum law entered into force in 2008. UNHCR then helped set up the National Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons by providing expert advice and guidance as well as office equipment and vehicles.

UNHCR experts in March held a training course for the new office's staff on issues such as refugee status determination, international refugee protection norms, human rights and UNHCR's mandate.

"They are young and motivated, but they do not have any previous experience in refugee status determination," said Periklis Kortsaris, one of the experts who led the week-long course. "We trained them in the refugee definition and basic standards for an asylum procedure. They will now be able to decide on asylum applications in accordance with international standards."

The project has been funded by the European Commission under its Strengthening Protection Capacity Project, which helps non-European Union countries to develop fully functional asylum systems, thereby enhancing the protection of asylum seekers and refugees worldwide.

Most of the refugees and asylum seekers hosted by Burundi come from the neighbouring Democratic Republic of the Congo. UNHCR has been present in Burundi since the 1960s, helping the government to protect and support refugees.

By Andreas Kirchhof in Bujumbura, Burundi




UNHCR country pages

Asylum and Migration

Asylum and Migration

All in the same boat: The challenges of mixed migration around the world.


Numbers are important in the aid business and UNHCR's statisticians monitor them daily.

Capacity Building

Helping national authorities meet their obligations to the uprooted.


We help refugees, refugee returnees and internally displaced people tap their potential and build a platform for a better future.


UNHCR advocates fair and efficient procedures for asylum-seekers

Zero-Star "Hotel" that Asylum-Seekers Call Home in Dijon

France is one of the main destinations for asylum-seekers in Europe, with some 55,000 new asylum applications in 2012. As a result of the growing number of applicants, many French cities are facing an acute shortage of accommodation for asylum-seekers.

The government is trying to address the problem and, in February 2013, announced the creation of 4,000 additional places in state-run reception centres for asylum-seekers. But many asylum-seekers are still forced to sleep rough or to occupy empty buildings. One such building, dubbed the "Refugee Hotel" by its transient population, lies on the outskirts of the eastern city of Dijon. It illustrates the critical accommodation situation.

The former meat-packing plant is home to about 100 asylum-seekers, mostly from Chad, Mali and Somalia, but also from Georgia, Kosovo and other Eastern European countries. Most are single men, but there are also two families.

In this dank, rat-infested empty building, the pipes leak and the electricity supply is sporadic. There is only one lavatory, two taps with running water, no bathing facilities and no kitchen. The asylum-seekers sleep in the former cold-storage rooms. The authorities have tried to close the squat several times. These images, taken by British photographer Jason Tanner, show the desperate state of the building and depict the people who call it home.

Zero-Star "Hotel" that Asylum-Seekers Call Home in Dijon

The Faces of Asylum

Everyone has a right to be treated humanely and with dignity. But asylum-seekers can sometimes be detained for years, forced to exist on the edge of society and struggle for their right to protection, while in some cases suffering human rights abuses. Their temporary new homes - a long way from the ones they left behind - can be sports halls, churches, closed centres, makeshift shelters or simply the street. Lives are put on hold while people wait in the hope of receiving refugee status.

Although it is the legitimate right of any government to secure its borders and prevent irregular immigration, it is important that anyone seeking asylum in a country have access to it. According to international law, states are obliged to provide protection to those in need, and must not return a person to a place where their life or freedom is threatened.

This photo set looks at the faces of people seeking asylum in industrialized countries - the real people behind the numbers, crossing land borders and oceans in search of safety, work or just a better life.

The Faces of Asylum

The Nansen Refugee Award 2005

Burundian humanitarian worker Maggy Barankitse received the 2005 Nansen Refugee Award for her tireless work on behalf of children affected by war, poverty and disease. The Nansen medal was presented at a grand ceremony in Brussels by H.R.H. Princess Mathilde of Belgium and UN Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees Wendy Chamberlin.

Accepting the award, Barankitse said her work was inspired by one single goal: peace. "Accept your fellow man, sit down together, make this world a world of brothers and sisters," she said. "Nothing resists love, that's the message that I want to spread."

Sponsored by UNHCR corporate partner Microsoft, the ceremony and reception at Concert Noble was also attended by Belgium's Minister for Development Co-operation Armand De Decker, European Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid Louis Michel, renowned Burundian singer Khadja Nin, Congolese refugee and comedian Pie Tshibanda, and French singer and UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Julien Clerc. Among others.

The Nansen Refugee Award 2005

Christmas tree a gift of love for refugees in GreecePlay video

Christmas tree a gift of love for refugees in Greece

For children spending Christmas at the Idomeni refugee reception centre in northern Greece, Congolese asylum seeker Michel Kamusha has "a gift of love." Drawing on his skills as an artist he decorates a Christmas with tree with socks, toys, shoes and clothes to give the youngsters "hope for Christmas."
Tanzania: Fleeing Burundi, Refugees Seek SafetyPlay video

Tanzania: Fleeing Burundi, Refugees Seek Safety

He used to fix broken bicycles in Burundi, but as political troubles and killings mounted Nestor Kamza decided to flee. In search of safety he and his family walked non-stop for 24-hours until they reached Tanzania. His family is among more than 100,000 people who have fled from political violence in Burundi and arrived in the Nyarugusu camp which has almost tripled in size. To alleviate overcrowding in the camp, UNHCR and its partners have planned to open three new camps and have started moving tens of thousands of Burundian refugees to a new, less congested, home
Greece: Ramping up refugee receptionPlay video

Greece: Ramping up refugee reception

UNHCR staff are working with Government authorities, NGOs and volunteers on the beaches of the Greek island of Lesvos to receive cold, wet and fearful asylum seekers making landfall around the clock. They wrap them in thermal blankets and take them to warm, safe emergency accommodation at transit sites, with power and Wi-Fi connectivity.