US report gives UNHCR high marks for Burundi operation

News Stories, 20 April 2009

© UNHCR/A.Kirchhof
Burundian returnee children at a UNHCR transit centre in Ruyigi province.

BUJUMBURA, Burundi, April 20 (UNHCR) A report commissioned by the United States has praised UNHCR's assisted voluntary repatriation programme for Burundi while warning that major challenges remain.

"Near-complete repatriation and reintegration are facts of life and were achieved with an indispensable contribution from the [UNHCR] programme of assisted return," said the report, referring to the return of almost half-a-million people over the past seven years. That's about six percent of the population.

Some features of the UN refugee agency's programme, added the recently released survey, "put it in the range of best practice responses to refugee crises and humanitarian crises in general."

The report was commissioned by the US State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM) and compiled by an independent group of experts. The bureau is one of the main sponsors of UNHCR's Burundi programme and the report was designed to evaluate PRM's impact on the repatriation and reintegration of Burundian refugees.

The researchers from the Terra P Group were in Burundi from June-November last year assessing the work of UNHCR, especially in border areas of heavy return. They asked returnees about their land, health, food situation, shelter and sanitation as well as employment and education opportunities. The questions were aimed at determining what effect the support from UNHCR and other humanitarian aid organizations had had on their lives.

The results were positive, with most refugees saying that they had benefitted from their returnee status in Burundi. Families interviewed had been back in Burundi for an average of four years and the report found that their living conditions were similar to those of people who never fled Burundi.

For the average returnee household, "assistance played an important role in the achievement of reintegration," said the report, which also noted that UNHCR had "ensured comprehensive physical, legal and economic protection of Burundian refugees during their repatriation."

But the report said big challenges remain. Access to land remains "a stumbling block" for many people returning to the small and densely populated country. The survey also cited problems such as overcrowded schools, lack of health facilities and food insecurity, which affect all Burundians.

UNHCR's voluntary return operation for Burundi began in 2002. It has helped 474,000 people return home, mostly from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda and Tanzania.

By Andreas Kirchhof in Bujumbura, Burundi