Milestones reached in UNHCR's operations for Burundian refugees
DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania, April 1 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency has passed two major milestones in its bid to find durable solutions for Burundian refugees in Tanzania: assisted repatriation figures topped 300,000, while the number of refugees in camps fell below 200,000 for the first time in 15 years.
UNHCR's voluntary repatriation operation for Burundian refugees in Tanzanian camps, which began in 2002, reached the 300,000 mark in March. In addition, tens of thousands of Burundian refugees have gone back home on their own, bringing the total number of refugees returning to Burundi to 389,000.
The 300,000 mark is a significant milestone in UNHCR's efforts to find lasting solutions for long-term refugee situations on the African continent. It helped last month push the number of refugees left in the north-west camps below the 200,000 mark.
"It is remarkable that the number has dropped so significantly within a few years. Only 14 months ago, UNHCR marked a drop below 300,000 of the camp population in north-western Tanzania," said Yacoub El Hillo, UNHCR representative in Tanzania.
At the peak of the Burundian crisis, which started in the early 1990s, nearly half a million people fled violence in their country and found shelter in neighbouring Tanzania.
The repatriation operations from the camps in Tanzania are continuing at a good pace and several initiatives have helped returnees restart their lives back home. UNHCR introduced cash grants for returnees last July, and in August - together with the World Food Programme - increased the return food ration to six months from three months.
As the camp-based refugee population continues to decrease, the UN refugee agency and the Tanzanians are moving towards consolidation of existing refugee camps. Last year, the number of camps was reduced from 11 to five and the process is expected to continue this year. Currently, 102,000 Burundian and 96,000 Congolese refugees remain in five camps in north-western Tanzania.
UNHCR plans to step up joint efforts, together with the other UN agencies, to ensure a smooth transition from humanitarian assistance to sustainable development in north-western Tanzania this year. The joint programme, which mainly benefits local communities, will focus on sectors such as income generation, energy, environment and social services. This is part of the UN reform initiative, "Delivering as One." Tanzania is one of eight countries where this reform is being piloted.
"For the great majority of the camp-based refugees, the solution lies in voluntary repatriation," said El Hillo. He added that the time had come for Burundian refugees to think seriously about going home now that conditions in areas of return had improved.
UNHCR started facilitating repatriation to Burundi and Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in 2002 and 2005 respectively. In January, the UN refugee agency marked 50,000 returns of Congolese refugees to the DRC from Tanzania under an assisted programme launched in 2005. Returnees to both countries receive assistance packages upon their return.
In addition to the remaining camp-based refugees, UNHCR, Tanzania and members of the international community are pursuing comprehensive solutions for 218,000 Burundian refugees who fled their country in 1972 and are living in three self-sufficient settlements, and for 2,000 Somali Bantus living in Chogo settlement in Tanga region.
While visiting Tanzania last month, UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres urged the international community to help the Tanzanian government in its efforts towards finding lasting and comprehensive solutions for the refugees.
By Eveline Wolfcarius in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania