Returns to Burundi rise amid fears of pressure in Tanzanian camps
KIBONDO, Tanzania, June 2 (UNHCR) - Nearly one month after the installation of a new president in Burundi, close to 5,000 Burundian refugees have returned home from refugee camps in Tanzania amid growing concerns that the refugees' decision to go back is not wholly voluntarily. Returns during May are the highest so far this year.
Some 4,000 Burundian refugees have gone home on their own to southern provinces in Burundi despite the prevailing insecurity in provinces such as Ruyigi and Makamba, while another 700 have been assisted home to areas of northern Burundi on UNHCR-organised convoys. Many of those repatriating complain that the level of food assistance in Tanzania's camps has steadily declined.
Citing security concerns, local authorities in camps in Kibondo district of western Tanzania have imposed new restrictions on refugees' movements, confining them to their camps. Many of the Burundian refugees who would normally supplement their food by going out to work in nearby farms are now unable go beyond the immediate vicinity of the camps and are wholly dependent on food aid. Food rations were reduced by half at the beginning of the year, but were partly restored - to 72 percent of normal rations - in April.
Prior to the recent restrictions, authorities had for years allowed refugees to move freely within a four-km radius of the camps. Many refugees had used this opportunity to go out to cultivate and engage in other activities to supplement their food and other needs.
There are fears that the newly imposed restrictive measures are likely to affect, in particular, some 35,000 Burundian refugees who have sought asylum in the United Republic of Tanzania since the beginning of 2002. This year alone, some 6,770 Burundian refugees have fled to Tanzania, some 200 of them during the month of May. These recent groups of refugees are thought to be more vulnerable as they may not yet have identified various ways of supplementing food and other assistance provided by the UN refugee agency and the World Food Programme.
As for the returnees, many of them are travelling back to Burundi on foot as the 70-km stretch between the camps in Kibondo and the Tanzania/Burundi border is not served by commercial vehicles.
The growing number of spontaneous returnees has compelled aid agencies to set up way stations, or en-route assistance centres where returnees can receive basic aid (water, food and in some cases, first aid).
In March 2002, UNHCR signed a three-party agreement with the governments of Burundi and Tanzania to aid the return of Burundian refugees who were willing to return to the relatively safe northern provinces of the small central African nation. Convoys organised by the UN refugee agency continue to transport returnees to the northern provinces of Muyinga, Kirundo, Ngozi, Karuzi, Gitega, Kayanga and Bujumbura Mairie. To date, more than 43,000 Burundians have been assisted home, some 9,965 of them this year alone. Separately, more than 12,000 Burundians have returned home, mainly to the south, on their own this year.