After 20 years, more than 1,000 Burundians returning home every day

News Stories, 14 November 2012

© UNHCR/K.McKinsey
A returnee bus crosses the border from Tanzania into Burundi. The convoys are carrying over 1,000 Burundians per day as they make the most of their last chance to get help returning home after losing their refugee status in Tanzania.

MABANDA TRANSIT CENTRE, Burundi, November 14 (UNHCR) More than 1,000 Burundians are returning to their homeland almost every day with the help of the UN refugee agency and its partners, after losing their refugee status in Tanzania.

Taking advantage of a last opportunity for assistance in making the journey, close to 8,000 former refugees have returned from Mtabila refugee camp in Tanzania since October 31 on convoys organized by UNHCR, the International Organization for Migration, and other partners. The first convoy carried only 356 people, but more are signing up every day.

"We see more and more people coming forward and the pace of the convoys is picking up," said Chansa Kapaya, UNHCR's representative in Tanzania. "Co-operation between the Tanzanian government and humanitarian agencies on issues related to the orderly return continues to be excellent."

International agencies stepped forward to help the former refugees go home after the government of Tanzania found that some 37,500 Burundians living in the country were no longer refugees and needed to leave Tanzania by the end of the year. A further 2,715 are being allowed to remain in the country as refugees.

The decision followed interviews with some 40,000 Burundian refugees conducted by panels made up of UNHCR staff and Tanzanian government officials over 11 months, giving consideration to developments in Burundi since they fled nearly 20 years ago.

When the weather is bad, the bus journey from Mtabila can take as long as four hours instead of two because rain has made some roads impassable. Once inside Burundi, returnees are given a hot meal at one of three UNHCR transit centres in Makamba province. They also spend the night there before continuing to their home areas.

Those who need medical care receive it and those with specific needs children alone, pregnant women, blind people or very old people get special attention.

"We thank God who led us here," said a man named Athanase, standing in this transit centre 20 kilometres from the border, with his wife and seven children, ranging in age from one to 18 years. He said they were looking forward to rebuilding their lives, even though they would have preferred to remain in Tanzania.

All returnees are registered by UNHCR and receive a month's food ration as well as a small cash grant. They also receive a number of useful household items, such as sleeping mats, mosquito nets, buckets, jerry cans, some clothing and sanitary materials. As well, they begin the process of getting a vital government ID card.

By the next morning, most are on their way back, with the help of UNHCR and partners, to where they originally came from. Trucks take them and their possessions to their hometowns (called communes in Burundi) -- 76 communes in 17 provinces, although three communes are the main destinations.

Some of the returnees who had fled civil strife in the 1990s seemed genuinely surprised to find a country at peace, apparently believing Burundi was still at war.

Since April 2002, UNHCR has supported the government of Burundi to reintegrate more than half a million returning refugees helping them reclaim their land, settle land disputes, build homes and start businesses.

"We have helped returnees to resume their normal life," said Catherine Huck, UNHCR's representative in Burundi. "UNHCR intends to continue working closely with the government and development organizations to make sure that this latest group of returnees can restart their lives and contribute to stability in Burundi."

By Kitty McKinsey at Mabanda Transit Centre, Burundi

Consolidated Inter-Agency information note on the closure of the Mtabila camp in the United Republic of Tanzania and the return to Burundi of the former refugees. 15 October 2012 31 March 2013




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Returnees in Myanmar

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

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