Following the recent elections and a desire to return home, refugees opt to go back home to rebuild their lives.
Claudine Habimana and her son wait to return home after years of exile in Rwanda. © UNHCR/Eugene Sibomana
Citing the elections that were held in May in Burundi and the desire to return home, some of the returnees from Mahama camp felt it was time for them to sign up to return. So far UNHCR in Rwanda has registered 1,800 refugees who expressed their wish to opt for voluntary repatriation. Prior to any assisted return, UNHCR staff conduct a voluntariness assessment.
“I learned that there is peace back home so I have to go back and rebuild my life,” said Claudine Habimana, 25, who was among those who departed.
After her first year of high school, she was forced to stop schooling and fled to Rwanda while pregnant. In the camp, Claudine had to take care of her kids and could not attend school. She is now eager to resume her studies.
“I hope I can complete school, study medicine and become a doctor,” she said.
Like Claudine, Jeannette left Burundi when she was just 20 years old. As a single mother, she has struggled to raise her two children who were born in the camp.
“I’m very excited to see my country again and provide a decent life for my children.”
“Life in a refugee camp hasn’t been easy and so home is the best place for me and my family,” she said. She has been monitoring the situation back home and was waiting to return once she felt conditions had gotten better.
“I’m very excited to see my country again and I’m ready to work hard to provide a decent life for my children,” she added.
A UNHCR staffer checks the documents of Burundian refugee Claudine Habimana before she departs from Rwanda. © UNHCR/Eugene Sibomana
Voluntary refugee repatriation: a group of Burundian refugees queues to board buses in Mahama, Rwanda. © UNHCR/Eugene Sibomana
A convoy of buses carrying Burundian refugees departs from Mahama camp, Rwanda. © UNHCR/Eugene Sibomana
For most Burundian refugees who fled to Rwanda in 2015, their expectation was to return home as soon as the situation allowed. Some, like Claudine and Jeanette, thought they would return after a few months or a year. Years on, their prolonged displacement did not dampen their hope of eventually returning home.
UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, has been supporting the Government of Rwanda to protect and assist Burundian refugees since their arrival in the country. Earlier this month, a virtual meeting was held between both governments and UNHCR where it was agreed to revitalize the Tripartite Agreement on Voluntary Returns of Burundian Refugees from Rwanda and begin facilitating returns.
“We will help those who express a desire and request our assistance to return at this time,” said Ahmed Baba Fall, UNHCR’s Representative in Rwanda noting, “and we will continue to support the Rwandan authorities to assist those refugees who remain in the country.
“We will help those who express a desire and request our assistance to return at this time.”
UNHCR in both Rwanda and Burundi are working close with authorities to ensure the returns take place in safety and dignity.
This includes activities to facilitate the returns, including pre-departure formalities such as registration, interviews to ascertain the voluntariness of their decision to return, health screening including COVID-19 tests, and provision of transportation, with specific attention to the most vulnerable people. Measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 are also in place.
In Rwanda, the majority of Burundian refugees live in Mahama camp in eastern Rwanda – the largest refugee camp in the country, hosting over 60,000 Burundians. UNHCR calls for the support of the international community to mobilize necessary resources for the voluntary repatriation programme, estimated at US$ 1.4 Million to assist the return of 5,000 refugees by the end of 2020.
Since 2017, over 89,000 refugees have been assisted to return to Burundi. Nearly all of these returns have been from Tanzania with relatively smaller numbers from Kenya and the DRC.