Burundi: first steps towards possible return from Tanzania camps
A UNHCR emergency team is set to leave Geneva today for Burundi to begin the first steps toward re-establishing field offices in provinces bordering Tanzania for the possible return of more than 300,000 Burundian refugees remaining in camps in Tanzania. Facilitated voluntary returns of Burundian refugees from Tanzania to other parts of Burundi have been increasing following the signing of a cease-fire agreement and a power-sharing agreement between the transitional government and the most important rebel group in Burundi, the FDD, in late 2003. An expanded UNHCR presence would enable us to begin facilitating returns to additional provinces in the south and east of the country. Since the operation began in March 2002, UNHCR has facilitated returns only to certain accessible provinces, mainly in the north and centre of the country, due to security constraints. Recent improvements in the security situation have allowed the emergency team to proceed with its assessment of the areas for possible office openings.
Meanwhile, a meeting of the Tripartite Commission on Voluntary Repatriation of Burundian Refugees will be held tomorrow (Wednesday) in Tanzania's northern town of Arusha. UNHCR and the governments of Tanzania and Burundi will attend the meeting to review the ongoing voluntary repatriation exercise of Burundian refugees in Tanzania. The meeting will seek agreement on various issues, including activating additional border crossing points for the repatriation, agreeing on the number of convoys that should cross the border each week, and plans to rehabilitate access roads and other infrastructure on both the Burundian and Tanzanian sides of the border. The meeting follows a technical working group meeting which started on Monday (19 January).
The UNHCR emergency team, comprising a head of operations, a finance and administration officer, and a telecoms/information technology officer, is expected to arrive in the Burundi capital, Bujumbura, tomorrow (Wednesday). They will travel to the border provinces in the coming days. A field staff safety advisor, already deployed to Burundi a week ago, will join up with the team on their arrival.
Security permitting, the team will look into possible new offices in provinces bordering Tanzania - Ruyigi along the central stretch of the border and Makamba in the south - and possible expansion of the existing UNHCR presence in Muyinga in the north. UNHCR closed its office in Ruyigi and reduced its presence in Muyinga in 2002 due to insecurity. We have not had a presence in Makamba for decades. The advance team will assess the situation, review the needs on the ground and prepare for possible deployment of additional staff. Additional emergency staff are on standby to travel by early February, if the situation on the ground warrants.
The return operation will focus on the more than 300,000 Burundian refugees still living in camps in western Tanzania. Another 470,000 Burundian refugees - so-called "old caseload" refugees who left Burundi in 1972 - live outside the camps in towns and villages. Various factors, including the availability of land for those who left Burundi over three decades ago, remain impediments to the return of the old caseload.
UNHCR started to facilitate the repatriation of Burundian refugees in March 2002. From March through December, 2002, more than 31,000 refugees were assisted back to accessible provinces in Burundi. In 2003, more than 37,000 returned through UNHCR-facilitated repatriation movements. Another 45,000 refugees returned on their own in 2003.