Burundi: UNHCR concerned over voluntariness of returns from Tanzania
The number of Burundian refugees returning home from refugee camps in western Tanzania has risen sharply over the last few weeks amid rising concern that that their return is not fully voluntary. In May alone, more than 4,000 Burundian refugees, who have been living in camps in Kibondo, western Tanzania, (or 30 per cent of spontaneous returns this year) have gone home to the southern Burundi provinces of Ruyigi and Makamba under their own means despite the prevailing insecurity there. Returning refugees cite the declining levels of assistance as one of the major reasons for return. Other returnees lament new measures imposed by local authorities which restrict their movements and now confine them to the camps. Before the recent restrictions, refugees were able to move freely within a 4-km radius of the camps. Refugees had used this opportunity to cultivate crops or engage in other activities to supplement their food and other needs.
Many of the Burundian refugees who would normally supplement their food by going out to work in nearby farms are now unable to go beyond the immediate vicinity of the camps and are wholly dependent on food aid. Meanwhile, food shortages at the beginning of the year caused the rations to be halved, though they were partly restored in April to 72 per cent of normal rations.
We are particularly concerned about the situation of more than 35,000 Burundians who have sought asylum in Tanzania in the last one and a half years. We feel that they may be particularly vulnerable, as they may not yet have found suitable ways of supplementing the assistance given to them by WFP and UNHCR.
UNHCR continues to operate weekly return convoys to the relatively safe provinces of northern Burundi. This year alone, nearly 10,000 refugees have repatriated aboard these convoys organised by UNHCR. Some 12,000 others have returned mainly on foot to Ruyigi across the border from Kibondo. These spontaneous returnees are walking nearly 70 km to the border. The growing number of spontaneous returnees has compelled aid agencies such as the Tanzania Red Cross Society to set up way stations or en-route assistance centres where returning refugees can receive basic aid such as water, food, and, if needed, first aid. Some 350,000 Burundians are in Tanzania's refugee camps.