UNHCR official says Burundi returns could be one of Africa's largest this year
GENEVA, April 8 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency's Assistant High Commissioner, Kamel Morjane, has returned from Burundi and Tanzania guardedly optimistic about what could be one of Africa's biggest repatriation movements this year.
On Thursday, the Assistant High Commissioner arrived back in Geneva after a week-long trip to review options and possibilities for the 320,000 Burundian refugees in Tanzania and to ensure that UNHCR was prepared for all eventualities for this group of refugees. He was accompanied by UNHCR's Deputy Director of its Africa Regional Bureau, Ms Zobida Hassim-Ashagrie.
The refugee agency believes that 2004 will be a year of significant repatriation in Africa, and that the Burundian refugees could be one of the main groups to return home.
In Burundi, where he met with President Domitien Ndayizeye, other senior government officials, UN partners and returnees, Morjane was impressed with the much improved security situation, momentum towards a political solution and level of international interest. He was encouraged by the prospect of a UN peacekeeping force in Burundi, and hoped that it would be provided with sufficient resources and authority to help the country on its road to stability.
He especially hoped that, 10 years after the genocide in neighbouring Rwanda, the international community would see the need to maintain sustained and generous support to Burundi.
Despite such hopeful developments, many issues in this often volatile country remained unresolved, warranting a prudent approach towards refugee return. The pace and sustainability of return appeared to hinge on the immediate security situation, the emergence of a political consensus and absorption capacity in areas of return. Hence the critical role of the international community in maintaining security, facilitating political discussions and providing humanitarian and development assistance to foment and consolidate conditions conducive to large-scale and sustainable return.
"UNHCR will never permit you to be pushed back to Burundi, but we will also never prevent anyone who wishes to return voluntarily from so doing," Morjane assured groups of refugees during three days spent in their midst in the western Tanzanian regions of Kibondo, Kasulu and Kigoma.
This message was well received by the refugees, who hailed from diverse backgrounds and shared with the UNHCR delegation their different hopes and fears on such issues as land, political consensus, reconciliation, education, health and reintegration assistance.
The Assistant High Commissioner also reiterated UNHCR's appreciation for Tanzania's longstanding tradition of hospitality towards refugees, and for its prominent role in working towards solutions in Africa. Citing a Tunisian proverb, he told government officials, "You can choose your friends, but you cannot choose your brothers." As a remarkably stable, non-refugee-producing nation, Tanzania has consistently been a true brother to its often troubled siblings.
The Assistant High Commissioner was sure that Tanzania would maintain its constructive attitude over the next few years towards both refugees able to repatriate immediately, and those who had legitimate reasons for delaying their return.
For 2004, UNHCR has planned for the repatriation of 150,000 Burundian refugees. This is simply a planning figure, and UNHCR is ensuring that it would be prepared to deal with larger numbers should conditions permit.
In addition to the Burundian refugees, Tanzania also hosts some 150,000 Congolese refugees. During a lively discussion with Congolese refugee leaders in Nyarugusu camp, Morjane learned that the refugees were very keen to repatriate as soon as possible. UNHCR is undertaking an intention survey to verify the voluntariness and magnitude of this, and will begin facilitating repatriation as soon as this has been confirmed.