The repatriation of 400 Burundians closes a chapter in long-running refugee saga
DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania, October 30 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency on Friday afternoon sent home the final group of long-term Burundian refugees in Tanzania who wanted to return, a landmark operation in ending one of the world's most protracted refugee situations.
A train carrying 400 civilians, who either fled from their homeland 37 years ago or are relatives of the so-called 1972 Burundian refugees, left Katumba, one of the so-called "Old Settlements" in western Tanzania, en route to Burundi. It marked the end of a year-and-a-half-long voluntary repatriation programme.
The refugees left for home from the same train station that they had arrived at almost four decades ago when they fled the eruption of ethnic violence which claimed the lives of an estimated 200,000 Burundian civilians.
Since March 2008, UNHCR has helped 53,500 refugees from the old settlements to return home. The voluntary repatriation of the 1972 Burundian refugees is part of a landmark programme launched with the Tanzanian government to end this protracted refugee situation.
Under the same programme, 162,000 of the 1972 refugees in Katumba and two other old settlements applied for Tanzanian citizenship. Since August, some 29,000 have been naturalized. The Tanzanian government aims to complete the process by the end of the year for the remaining 133,000 applicants.
Tanzania also hosts Burundian refugees who fled their country in 1993. These refugees were mainly hosted in camps in Kigoma and Kagera provinces in the north-west, only one of which remains open. Burundian refugees also fled to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Rwanda and Uganda at the same time.
With the gradual return of peace in Burundi, more than half-a-million Burundian refugees have returned home, including over 430,000 from camps in Tanzania. That now leaves just 36,000 Burundian refugees in one remaining camp in Tanzania, Mtabila, as well as another 21,500 in the DRC, Rwanda and Uganda.
UNHCR is working closely with Burundi and the governments of asylum countries to actively promote the return of the remaining Burundian refugees. These efforts are part of a comprehensive strategy and roadmap leading ultimately to the cessation of refugee status of Burundians.
Meanwhile in Burundi, UNHCR is helping returnees solve problems they face in reclaiming their land by providing them with temporary shelter and supporting the peaceful resolution of land disputes arising from their long absence. The government and its UN partners are also helping landless returnees settle in specially constructed villages, six of which have been opened in 2008 and 2009.
By Eveline Wolfcarius in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania