The imminent return of more than 35,000 Burundians from Tanzania poses major logistical challenges to aid agencies and the densely populated country they fled amid civil war almost 20 years ago. The return could degenerate into a “humanitarian disaster” if they ignore a 31 December deadline to leave willingly and end up being deported en masse.
While Burundi has absorbed more than half a million refugees since 2002, never before has it had to contend with such a large number of returnees in such a short space of time.
A particular cause of concern is that 60 percent of this caseload, now living in Tanzania’s Mtabila camp, was born outside of Burundi, whose language, Kirundi, many do not speak. More than a quarter of the households in Mtabila are headed by women, and 3,000 of the camp’s residents have no land to return to in Burundi, where 90 percent of the population lives off subsistence agriculture.
For several years, those in Mtabla have resisted various forms of enticements and pressures to leave the camp, while the Tanzanian government has allowed a series of departure deadlines to lapse.
But this deadline is different, backed up by the decision made earlier this year, after interviews with all Mtabila residents and fully supported by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), to withdraw the refugee status of almost everyone in the camp.
This has not dented the reluctance of those in Mtabila to return to Burundi, where land is scarce, security shaky and economic opportunities limited. Between 1 August - when they were told of their loss of status and of the camp’s imminent closure - and 4 October, just 890 have gone back, according to UNHCR data.
No other choice
Until the end of the year, those returning to Burundi will be entitled to receive reintegration assistance from UNHCR and other agencies in the form of a cash grant, six months of food rations as well as health, education and shelter support.
"It's hard for them to accept, but they have no other choice now,” said Catherine Huck, UNHCR's representative in Burundi.
“Reintegration will take time, and special efforts will be needed, especially when it comes to land access, reinsertion of children into schools and extension of basic services,” she said.
“The camp will be closed on 31 December 2012. They are not refugees anymore, and need now to comply with the Tanzanian immigration law," she told IRIN.
This law provides for the deportation of those not entitled to stay in the country. The UNCHR’s Tanzania office has made it clear it would not take part in any “forced returns to Burundi, in light of its humanitarian mandate.”
"We are now working on a scenario of organized return. For now, we have just been doing sensitization campaigns, explaining they have to return. We will continue to do so,” Huck said.
“You cannot remain a refugee all your life,” she added.
“A refusal to return could potentially degenerate into a difficult and chaotic process that UNHCR would like to avoid. It is with this in mind that UNHCR is committed to work with both governments and the Burundian former refugees to achieve a return and reintegration process that is orderly, safe and secure, and respectful of their human rights and dignity,” she said.
The alternative, according to an 8 October statement signed by Burundi, Tanzania and the UNHCR after a joint meeting in Geneva, could be a “humanitarian disaster.”
The return process, the statement said, should “preferably be voluntary in nature.”
A mass exodus would be “a very serious problem,” according to Theodore Mbazumutima, project manager with Rema Ministries, a Burundian NGO that has worked on the Mtabila case and on the wider issues of refugee reintegration.
There is a real risk of “families being scattered, children being separated” and of returnees ending up with insufficient food and housing,” he said.
Even if those in Mtabila wanted to return before the deadline, “Burundi is not able to accommodate 35,000 in three months,” Mbazumutima told IRIN in Bujumbura.
“But is very clear they are not coming back yet,” he said.
In his view, the situation has reached a crisis because, though information has been provided to those in Mtabila through mass meetings, insufficient interaction has taken place with opinion-leaders within the camp.
“They should have been isolated and engaged in serious dialogue. Instead, Tanzania tried to put [community leaders] in prison, hoping they would change their minds,” he said, adding that Tanzania could still maintain its stance on the withdrawal of refugee status while softening its position on the deadline, allowing for a more gradual camp closure, and improved two-way communication with the camp residents.
“The [Burundian] government needs to be better prepared. Not much is being done for the 3,000 who have no land to return to,” or to accommodate the children who, because of school closures in Mtabila, have had no formal education over the past three years. This will especially be problematic for children who arrive in January, three months into the school year, he said.
“Schools [in Burundi] are already bursting full,” he said. “If nothing is done, it won’t be long before another 5,000 go back [to Tanzania] one way or another.”
Specific challenges involved in returning Mtabila residents to Burundi include the provision of sufficient registration personnel, access to identity documentation and legal support, and the development of the infrastructure necessary to absorb the 20,000 children.
“It is a big problem to welcome all these people,” Pascal Nyabebenda, chairman of the ruling CNDD-FDD party told IRIN.
“Even those returnees who came before have problems. When these come, other problems will be added to the first ones,” he said. “But as soon as they come, we will welcome them.”