Urban refugees struggle to cope with cost of living in Burundi

News Stories, 16 October 2008

© UNHCR/B.Ntwari
Hard Sell: Vendors in Bujumbura's central market.

BUJUMBURA, Burundi, October 16 (UNHCR) Life is getting tougher and tougher for Burundi's 12,000 urban refugees and asylum seekers. Amid rising prices and dwindling opportunities to make money, hundreds of refugees have left the capital, Bujumbura, over the past two years and moved to refugee camps where they can get assistance and free schooling for their children.

Monique,* a dynamic young Congolese woman, is among the refugees who have been feeling the pinch in recent months. She ekes out a living by selling soap powder in small plastic bags around Bujumbura's busy central market.

Like other urban refugees she receives hardly any assistance and needs the income to support herself and three younger sisters, who are all still students. The four of them fled to Burundi four years ago to escape fighting in South Kivu province in neighbouring Democratic Republic of the Congo.

It is a thankless job buttonholing people at the entrances to the market and trying to persuade them to buy her wares. It's also illegal because she does not have a licence to sell and must play a constant game of cat-and-mouse with patrolling police.

"Ingenuity doesn't work any more. In spite of the generosity of my neighbours, who pay for my sisters' school fees, life is still very expensive and I cannot afford it. I have no husband, no family to help me. If I could get at least food assistance, because life is very hard in Bujumbura," complained Monique.

The UN refugee agency has been helping a small number of urban refugees earn a living during this difficult period. UNHCR is also looking at ways to reduce the drift to countryside camps and to encourage partners to help it better assist the most vulnerable especially women and children like Monique and her sisters who want to stay in Bujumbura.

Refugees cling to life in urban areas for various reasons, ranging from personal or family concerns to the hope of landing a decent job. With these people in mind, Bo Schack, UNHCR's representative in Burundi, said the agency hoped over the next few years to "develop a better support system for the urban communities."

In 2007, UNHCR launched a scheme to help 45 urban refugee families set up small businesses. The agency is also paying some medical costs for urban refugees, with up to 100 percent coverage for the most vulnerable.

UNHCR's is also helping to fund an income generation project run by its partner, Handicap International (France), for urban refugees. Congolese refugee Alphonsine* received seed money of US$200 under this scheme to start a business selling rice to restaurants in the suburb of Jabe.

She makes US$3 per day, which is still not enough to cover all her needs, including rent and school fees for her four children. "I wish I could get additional support," she said, adding: "Prices are continually going up and life is becoming unaffordable."

But she does not want to go to a refugee camp because she needs a special diet and daily medical treatment for HIV Alphonsine fled to Burundi in 2002 after she was raped and infected by militiamen. But while she still faces difficulties, Handicap International praises her success in earning an income and said the results of its project have been good.

UNHCR assists and provides protection to more than 16,000 refugees living in four refugee camps in Burundi. While the agency's assistance to the urban refugees in Burundi is not great, UNHCR would like to help more in the future.

High Commissioner António Guterres told UNHCR's governing body earlier this month that the people the agency must help are increasingly found in urban areas.

"In 1800, only three percent of the world's population lived in cities and towns. This year the proportion will reach 50 percent, and in 2050 it may be as high as 70 percent. As a result of these trends, UNHCR will almost inevitably be obliged to adapt its way of working so as to meet the needs of refugees, returnees, internally displaced and stateless persons who were born or who have taken up residence in an urban area," Guterres said.

* Name changed for protection reasons.

By Bernard Ntwari in Bujumbura, Burundi