Over 10,000 Burundian returnees in first six weeks of 2004
GISURU, Burundi, Feb 18 (UNHCR) - More than 10,000 Burundian refugees have returned home from camps in Tanzania in January and the first half of February this year.
Nearly 5,200 of the refugees have returned through a new border crossing point opened in late January. Twice-weekly convoys have brought thousands of refugees home in the first two-and-a-half weeks of the operation. The new crossing point at Gisuru was opened to allow UNHCR to organise returns to the eastern Ruyigi province, which was previously inaccessible for security reasons.
Given the success of the returns through Gisuru so far and the interest among the refugees to return home to Ruyigi, UNHCR is increasing the number of weekly convoys along this route to four starting this week. Each convoy transports around 1,000 refugees back home.
At the same time, refugees staying in camps in the Ngara region of Tanzania further to the north have been returning in twice-weekly convoys through the other border crossing point at Kobero in Burundi's north-eastern Muyinga province. UNHCR plans to continue the convoys for some 1,000 refugees per week, which will bring the total weekly returns to 5,000. A third crossing point at Gahumo is used for refugees from Burundi's Cankuzo province. Over 500 refugees have returned with UNHCR's help through this crossing point this year.
So far this year, 9,125 Burundian refugees have returned home in UNHCR-organised movements, while another 897 have returned on their own.
To cope with the large numbers of returns, UNHCR has been beefing up its presence and operations in the provinces neighbouring Tanzania. Three more emergency staff have been deployed to Burundi, joining the three already on the ground as of January 20. Another four emergency staff are due to arrive in the next 10 days.
The teams are working to open a UNHCR office in Ruyigi province to help the returnees. The refugee agency closed its office in there in 2001 for security reasons. Recent improvements in security in some areas of Burundi have paved the way for an increased UNHCR presence and programmes. The agency is also expanding its existing office in Muyinga province, and a staff member has arrived to head up the office there.
More than 300,000 Burundi refugees still live in camps in Tanzania. UNHCR began facilitating returns to Burundi in 2002, but until this year had limited these organised convoys to provinces in northern and central Burundi for security reasons. This year, following ceasefire and power-sharing agreements between the government and the main rebel group, the FDD, improved security has been opening up opportunities for organised refugee returns to new regions of the country.