The repatriation of 400 Burundians closes a chapter in long-running refugee saga

News Stories, 30 October 2009

© UNHCR/A.Kirchhof
Homeward Bound: An earlier group of Burundian refugees return home by truck convoy.

DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania, October 30 (UNHCR) The UN refugee agency on Friday afternoon sent home the final group of long-term Burundian refugees in Tanzania who wanted to return, a landmark operation in ending one of the world's most protracted refugee situations.

A train carrying 400 civilians, who either fled from their homeland 37 years ago or are relatives of the so-called 1972 Burundian refugees, left Katumba, one of the so-called "Old Settlements" in western Tanzania, en route to Burundi. It marked the end of a year-and-a-half-long voluntary repatriation programme.

The refugees left for home from the same train station that they had arrived at almost four decades ago when they fled the eruption of ethnic violence which claimed the lives of an estimated 200,000 Burundian civilians.

Since March 2008, UNHCR has helped 53,500 refugees from the old settlements to return home. The voluntary repatriation of the 1972 Burundian refugees is part of a landmark programme launched with the Tanzanian government to end this protracted refugee situation.

Under the same programme, 162,000 of the 1972 refugees in Katumba and two other old settlements applied for Tanzanian citizenship. Since August, some 29,000 have been naturalized. The Tanzanian government aims to complete the process by the end of the year for the remaining 133,000 applicants.

Tanzania also hosts Burundian refugees who fled their country in 1993. These refugees were mainly hosted in camps in Kigoma and Kagera provinces in the north-west, only one of which remains open. Burundian refugees also fled to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Rwanda and Uganda at the same time.

With the gradual return of peace in Burundi, more than half-a-million Burundian refugees have returned home, including over 430,000 from camps in Tanzania. That now leaves just 36,000 Burundian refugees in one remaining camp in Tanzania, Mtabila, as well as another 21,500 in the DRC, Rwanda and Uganda.

UNHCR is working closely with Burundi and the governments of asylum countries to actively promote the return of the remaining Burundian refugees. These efforts are part of a comprehensive strategy and roadmap leading ultimately to the cessation of refugee status of Burundians.

Meanwhile in Burundi, UNHCR is helping returnees solve problems they face in reclaiming their land by providing them with temporary shelter and supporting the peaceful resolution of land disputes arising from their long absence. The government and its UN partners are also helping landless returnees settle in specially constructed villages, six of which have been opened in 2008 and 2009.

By Eveline Wolfcarius in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania

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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.

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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

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