UNHCR explores plans to expand in Burundi

News Stories, 20 January 2004

© UNHCR/L.Taylor
Burundian refugees at a food distribution in Mtabila camp, western Tanzania &; a region that hosts more than 300,000 Burundian refugees in camps.

GENEVA, Jan 20 (UNHCR) Hundreds of thousands of Burundian refugees in Tanzania could go home soon as the UN refugee agency pursues plans to expand facilitated returns to previously inaccessible areas in Burundi.

A UNHCR emergency team today left the agency's headquarters in Geneva for Burundi in a first step to open offices in several of the country's eastern and southern provinces bordering Tanzania. This comes amid improved security in parts of Burundi after the signing of a cease-fire deal and a power-sharing agreement between the transitional government in Bujumbura and the FDD rebel group in late 2003.

Because of improvements in the security situation, the UN has eased some restrictions on travel and presence in three areas of Burundi Makamba, Bururi-Ville and Rutana bringing these three areas in line with much of the rest of the country and making them more accessible by UN staff.

The UNHCR mission, consisting of a head of operations, a finance and operations officer and a telecoms/information technology officer, will join a field staff safety adviser and travel to areas bordering Tanzania to assess the situation, review the needs on the ground and prepare for the possible deployment of additional staff.

Security permitting, UNHCR would like to open new offices in Ruyigi along the central stretch of the border and Makamba in the south, as well as to expand its presence in Muyinga in the north. The refugee agency closed its office in Ruyigi and reduced its presence in Muyinga in 2002 due to insecurity. It has not had a presence in Makamba for decades.

Since starting its assisted voluntary repatriation operation in March 2002, UNHCR has focused on facilitating returns to safer areas in northern and central Burundi. Now that security has improved in some parts of the country, the refugee agency's planned expansion to the east and south will mean that some of the over 300,000 Burundian refugees still living in Tanzania's camps could soon be able to go home with UNHCR assistance.

On Wednesday, the Tripartite Commission on the Voluntary Repatriation of Burundian Refugees is scheduled to meet in Arusha, Tanzania, to review the ongoing return programme between Burundi and Tanzania. Representatives from UNHCR and the two governments hope to agree on plans to activate additional border crossing points for repatriation, the number of weekly return convoys, as well as plans to rehabilitate roads and infrastructure on both sides of the border.

More than 68,000 Burundian refugees have returned from Tanzania since the start of UNHCR-assisted repatriation in March 2002. Another 45,000 went home on their own in 2003.