Money makes the world go round for refugee returnees in Burundi

Setting the Agenda, 17 July 2009

© UNHCR/A.Kirchhof
Burundian refugees sing after arriving back home in May after years in exile.

GENEVA, July 20 (UNHCR) The UN refugee agency is on a constant search for the most effective way of supporting the reintegration of refugees who have returned home after years in exile. A report released last Friday concludes that cash grants can play a significant role in that process.

The report, published by UNHCR's Policy Development and Evaluation Service (PDES), examines the impact of the cash grants that the organization has provided to almost 150,000 Burundian refugees who have returned from Tanzania in the last two years. It suggests that such grants should become a standard option for UNHCR's voluntary repatriation and reintegration programmes.

But the report also cautions that to be effective, cash grants should form part of a broader programme of repatriation and reintegration support. Almost half a million refugees have returned from Tanzania to Burundi since UNHCR's voluntary repatriation programme began in 2002.

Since July 2007, each returnee from the camps in north-western Tanzania has received a cash grant of 50,000 Burundian francs (around US$40), in addition to an in-kind return package that includes seeds, tools and transport. The cash grant is distributed through a national banking cooperative with branches throughout the country.

In April 2008, a voluntary repatriation programme was also initiated for refugees from older settlements in Tanzania, most of whom had fled Burundi during inter-ethnic massacres in 1972. These returnees initially received a cash and transport-only assistance package, until the rest of the return package was also extended to them earlier this year.

Returnees told the evaluation team that they had used the cash for a range of purchases. Food came top of the list, followed by investments in land, shelter construction, seeds, tools and fertiliser, clothing, health care and animal husbandry. "The cash grant helped a lot. I bought some land and was able to construct a small house. It gave us pride," said one returnee.

The team concluded that cash provided the returnees with a cost-effective means of meeting their essential needs while they re-established their homes and livelihoods. Many of those that UNHCR interviewed were happy to be back, and the reintegration measures had clearly been beneficial. The report concluded that the introduction of cash grants had revitalized the voluntary repatriation process and encouraged refugees to return.

The cash grant helped a lot. I bought some land and was able to construct a small house. It gave us pride.

a returnee

"We lived well in Tanzania. But return signified dignity to live in your own country, and not always to be branded a refugee," said one male returnee. "I feel good now. I have the honour of feeling myself to be in my own country. This is dignity for me," added another young returnee to southern Burundi.

Some of the so-called 1972 Burundians who returned from the older settlements nonetheless faced complex obstacles upon return. In particular, many had lost touch with their former communities and encountered difficulties in identifying and recovering their homes and land.

The team found that the initial decision to adopt a cash and transport-only return package for this group had led to a higher tendency to use the cash for immediate consumption rather than long-term investment.

A crucial factor in the success of the cash grant programme was that it formed part of a much broader strategy to address reintegration needs, including an extensive shelter programme, UNHCR's engagement on the issue of access to land and support to the government's own reintegration activities.

Cash has been used in UNHCR repatriation operations for many years. In the early 1990s, cash payments supported the return of more than 370,000 refugees from the Khmer Rouge regime who returned to Cambodia prior to the 1993 elections. Cash grants have also helped more than 4.4 million Afghan refugees to return home since 2002.

Within the broader humanitarian community, there has been growing interest in the provision of cash grants. Not only are they very popular with the people who receive them, but they are also very cheap to distribute when compared to the costs and logistical complexities involved in the distribution of relief items.

"The UNHCR report contributes to this growing body of knowledge and documents some important lessons from the Great Lakes which can inform the design of future programmes elsewhere in the world," said Jeff Crisp, head of PDES.

By Vicky Tennant in Geneva

Click here to read the report.