The past is a foreign country for some Burundian refugees

News Stories, 7 May 2009

© UNHCR/B.Bannon
A place called Home: Ogeste works his land and looks forward to a happy future as a Tanzanian.

MISHAMO, Tanzania, May 7 (UNHCR) Ogeste Gelevasi sits in front of his humble house, looking out over fields of cassava and tobacco with a wide smile of contentment. He feels at home here in western Tanzania after almost 40 years as a refugee from neighbouring Burundi.

For Ogeste, the country he fled aged two is a foreign country; that's why he, like an estimated 165,000 of the remaining so-called 1972 Burundians living in Mishamo and two other "old settlements," have decided to accept a landmark offer by the government to settle in Tanzania and apply for citizenship.

Just 55,000 of the refugees, dubbed the 1972 Burundians because they or their parents fled that country in that year, have opted to go home under a programme launched in 2008 and expected to end this year. UNHCR this week appealed for extra funds after revising its budget for the 2009 portion of the repatriation and integration programme upwards from US$12.7 million to US$28.2 million.

"We are used to life in Tanzania," Ogeste told recent UNHCR visitors to his thatched hut in Mishamo. "It gave us a plot to farm; it gave us a place where we could live . . . After we were given a choice between two places, we decided to stay in Tanzania."

Ogeste, aged 39, fled to Tanzania in 1972 and has lived in Mishamo ever since. His wife, Janet, and three children were all born and raised in Tanzania.

Some of his friends have decided to go back, but the majority of the Burundians in the Mishamo, Ulyankulu and Katumba "old settlements" want to stay in the country that offered them shelter from the horrors back home.

"My good friend Elia, who I have known for long, is going back with his family. He says he wants to work hard there with his kids and rebuild the country he left. I will miss seeing him here," Ogeste said.

Impatient to become a citizen of Tanzania, Ogeste reflected on his life as a refugee. He started working while still at school and has been a farmer and trader for years, living a life similar to that of Tanzanians in nearby villages.

"When I started this life, it was tough. I worked as a fisherman for a year and saved enough money to start farming and to marry. Later, I set up a small shop, but I also continued farming. So life is good we are clothed; we eat and sleep well," Ogeste explained.

Becoming a Tanzanian citizen will be an immense psychological boost and it could help improve his outlook. He plans to use the opportunity to travel around the country and look for new business. "We are hopeful that as soon as we become citizens of Tanzania, we will be able to do more," he said.

Emmanuel Bilengeko, Ogeste's neighbour, agreed. "Today, we choose to be naturalized because this country is good and the people here have loved us."

Soon people like Ogeste and Emmanuel will be moving out of the old settlements and finding new homes among their fellow Tanzanian citizens around the country. UNHCR and the international community will still be around to help the Tanzanian government ensure that their integration is smooth and sustainable.

By Brendan Bannon in Mishamo and Eveline Wolfcarius in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania




Durable Solutions

Voluntary repatriation, local integration, resettlement, the three key solutions.

Local Integration

Integration of refugees in the host community allows recipients to live in dignity and peace.

Integration Initiatives: Supporting Next Steps

An inventory of opportunities and needs in the integration of resettled refugees

Finding a Home on Ancestral Land

Somali Bantu refugees gaining citizenship in Tanzania

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

A fresh start; Burundian former refugees begin a new chapter in their lives

Since the end of October more than 26,000 Burundian former refugees have been assisted by UNHCR and its partners to return home from the Mtabila camp in northwest Tanzania. The operation is organized with the Government of Tanzania to help some 35,500 Burundian former refugees go back to Burundi by the end of 2012, when the Mtabila camp officially closes.

Refugee status for most Burundians in Tanzania formally ended in August following individual interviews to assess remaining protection needs. A total of 2,715 people will continue to be hosted as refugees in Tanzania, while the rest, the last of a population of refugees who left Burundi some 20 years ago, must return home. This is not an easy move after having spent most of your life -- and sometimes all of it -- in exile.

While awaiting their turn to join one of the daily convoys to bring them home, Burundian former refugees are preparing themselves for a fresh start…

A fresh start; Burundian former refugees begin a new chapter in their lives

Photo Gallery: The Challenge of Forced Displacement in Africa

Africa is the continent most affected by the tragedy of forced displacement. While millions of refugees were able to return to Angola, Burundi, Liberia, Rwanda and South Sudan over the last 15 years, the numbers of internally displaced people continued to grow. At the beginning of 2009, in addition to some 2.3 million refugees, an estimated 11.6 million people were internally displaced by conflict in Africa.

To address forced displacement on the continent, the African Union is organizing a special summit on refugees, returnees and internally displaced people from October 19-23 in the Ugandan capital, Kampala. Heads of state and government will look at the challenges and at ways to find solutions to forced displacement. They are also expected to adopt a Convention for the protection and assistance of internally displaced people (IDP) in Africa, which would be the first legally binding instrument on internal displacement with a continental scope. This photo gallery looks at some of the forcibly displaced around Africa, many of whom are helped by UNHCR.

Photo Gallery: The Challenge of Forced Displacement in Africa

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
Tanzania: Setting Sail to SafetyPlay video

Tanzania: Setting Sail to Safety

More than 60,000 Burundian refugees have arrived in Tanzania since the beginning of May. On the shores of Lake Tanganyika, hundreds board a ferry to Kigoma, Tanzania, before continuing to Nyaragusu camp.
Rwanda: Flight from BurundiPlay video

Rwanda: Flight from Burundi

In recent weeks, the number of Burundian refugees crossing into Rwanda has increased significantly. According to the Government of Rwanda, since the beginning of April, 25,004 Burundians, mostly women and children, have fled to Rwanda. Many said they had experienced intimidation and threats of violence linked to the upcoming elections.