Burundian refugees returning home need urgent support

UNHCR Regional Refugee Coordinator for Burundi calls for more support to ensure sustainable returns and reintegration of Burundian refugees

Burundian returnee in Kinazi transit center, Burundi, waiting to board a bus to return to her village.
© Bernard Ntwari

Niyonkingi Esperancia, her husband and their six children returned to Burundi after living in Nduta refugee camp in Tanzania for three years. But their return home has not been easy.


“We are now facing hunger,” says the former refugee, who is nearly in her fifties. She explains that the food they received when they arrived did not even last them a month.

This is partly because Niyonkingi felt the need to share her returnee package with close family members she left behind when she fled, who are also struggling. The small cash assistance component of the package went quickly too, used for transport to her home and to buy seeds and farming tools. The house they live in is covered with a leaking plastic sheet, distributed by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, on her arrival. 

Many of the Burundian returnees are in a similar situation to Niyonkingi. 

“We need more support from donors to mobilize a robust reintegration program”

Several lamented they had been forced to leave their farming tools behind in Tanzania. And those without their own farms in Burundi have had to rent agricultural land or work the land of others and take only a portion of the harvest. They came back with shockingly little from refugee camps, where economic activities have unfortunately been severely restricted.

“We need more support from donors to mobilize a robust reintegration program with other UN and NGO partners,” said Catherine Wiesner, UNHCR’s Regional Refugee Coordinator for the Burundi Situation, while on a visit to meet returnees in Burundi.

She added that increased support was necessary to ensure sustainable returns and integration of the returnees into the society.

“We also need to invest in social cohesion at the community level, which will require both immediate humanitarian assistance and progressive development initiatives,” she explained.

  • Burundian returnee in Kinazi transit center, Burundi, waiting to board a bus to return to her village.
    Burundian returnee in Kinazi transit center, Burundi, waiting to board a bus to return to her village. © Bernard Ntwari
  • Burundian returnee in Kinazi transit center, Burundi, waiting to board a bus to return to her village.
    Burundian returnee in Kinazi transit center, Burundi, waiting to board a bus to return to her village. © Bernard Ntwari

Since the beginning of the voluntary repatriation operation in September 2017, UNHCR has facilitated the return of more than 67,000 Burundian returnees, the vast majority from Tanzania, with smaller numbers assisted to return from Kenya and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Additional refugee returns from Rwanda and Uganda have been nearly all self-organized.

Returnees receive an arrival package that includes food, household supplies and a small cash component - all of which returnees say is incredibly important but doesn’t last long.

Havugiyaremye, 40, recently returned to Burundi in a convoy of buses that arrived at Kinazi transit center in northern Burundi. He lived in Tanzania’s Mtendeli refugee camp for four years.

Due to land litigation in the family, he can’t return to his native village in Murema in Muyinga Province. He has opted to live in Giteranyi, a small town in the Northern Province of Muyinga, where he plans to rent a small house and start a small business as a motorcycle taxi driver - the job he was doing before he fled to Tanzania. His wife, Matilde, is good at dressmaking and hopes to get support to obtain a sewing machine. 

“We have the strength and the skills, but we do not know how to go about our plans due to lack of means,” says Havugiyaremye. 

UNHCR’s Wiesner explains that for returns to be sustainable, more investment in areas where refugees are returning is desperately needed. While UNHCR is not promoting refugee returns to Burundi at this point in time, UNHCR and partners are providing assistance to those who indicate they have made an informed choice to voluntarily repatriate. The situation in Burundi remains complex and while returning home now presents an important solution for some refugees, many others feel the situation is not yet conducive.

“We need continued solidarity to meet the basic needs and protection for the majority of Burundian refugees who are not yet ready to go home and live in overcrowded camps with limited opportunities to support themselves and their families,” she adds.

The Burundi refugee response and return operation are running on a very limited budget. UNHCR and partner agencies have through the Burundi Regional Response Plan for 2019-2020, appealed for US$ 296 million this year. Only 10 per cent of the financial requirements have been received.

A US$ 78 million Joint Refugee Return and Reintegration Plan has also been developed with UNDP and other partners in Burundi to address the immediate humanitarian and longer-term resilience and reintegration needs of Burundian refugees choosing to return voluntarily. The emphasis is on improving the absorption capacity and economic opportunities in communities of return.