After years of resisting voluntary repatriation efforts, tens of thousands of Burundians in Tanzania now face a deadline to leave by the end of 2012, following a decision to put a formal end to their refugee status.
Some 38,000 Burundians live in the Mtabila refugee camp in the Kigoma Region. It is the last remaining of a half-dozen such sites for Burundians who have fled civil conflicts since the early 1970s. At the height of the latest such conflict, in 2002, there were over half a million Burundian refugees in Tanzania.
In recent interviews, Mtabila residents described the atmosphere in the camp as tense and uncertain. Members of the Tanzanian National Service, which plans to take over the camp, have already moved in to parts of the facility, adding to the already fraught environment.
“I don’t know what will happen or where I will go because we do not want to go back to Burundi,” said Charles Ndacayisaba, 23. “Every weekend now some people are sneaking out and boarding buses to go other countries, usually Mozambique.”
Mtabila’s residents have seen several departure deadlines come and go. But the new order that they leave by 31 December follows a 1 August announcement that, on the basis of screening interviews conducted with the participation of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), only 2,715 of them were still entitled to refugee status. An appeals process is ongoing for some of the refugees.
This announcement formalized a ruling earlier this year that most of the refugees were no longer in need of international protection.
A few weeks before the refugee status was officially revoked, commerce in Mtabila was prohibited, and markets and shops there destroyed. Recent months have also seen an increased presence of police and military personnel, further restricting movement in and out of the camp.
Pressure on the refugees has also come from unrelated developments. A shortfall in donations forced the World Food Programme to halve its rations in June and July. (Full rations were restored in mid-August).
Around 160,000 of the refugees who poured in from Burundi in 1973 have been naturalized. Many thousands were voluntarily repatriated in the wake of a 2006 peace agreement in Burundi.
More recently, however, despite a reintegration assistance packages offered by UNHCR - a cash grant, 6 months of food rations, as well as health, education and shelter support - only a few hundred Burundians returned from Tanzania in 2011, and the number of returnees dwindled even further in 2012.
Those remaining in Mtabila after a grace period expires at the end of the year will be subject to Tanzania’s immigration laws and procedures, which could entail deportation.
This has prompted alarm among advocacy groups such as the International Refugee Rights Initiative (IRRI) and Rema Ministries.
“Although the Government of Tanzania can lawfully withdraw refugee status, it is absolutely critical that the process of withdrawal and return, which is already underway, is conducted according to the basic requirements of Tanzanian administrative law and human rights,” the two organizations said in a detailed “urgent briefing” released on 10 August.
“It is also critical that Burundi is supported and appropriately prepared to safely receive returning citizens in dignity. Premature or forced return will not only create significant additional suffering for this group of Burundians and their host communities (whether in Tanzania or in Burundi) but will also deepen the security challenges with which the states and international actors involved in the operation will have to grapple,” the briefing added.
Misinformation and rumour
The briefing noted that the screening exercise was conceived to ensure due legal process. But the interviews and subsequent announcement of results - on lists posted on public notice boards – led to misunderstandings and grievances among some refugees.
For example, refugees were told they would receive a letter explaining their status. Months after the lists were posted, none have received such letters.
According to the briefing, some refugees found the appeals process confusing, while many mistakenly believed that UNHCR was not involved either in drawing up the lists or in the appeals.
Further misinformation and rumour have been rife. Preachers at several churches have been arrested after they were accused of encouraging refugees to stay.
According to IRRI and Rema Ministries, “The regime now being imposed on Mtabila is intended to create conditions in which life becomes unbearable and refugees are forced out.”
Some, like Devotte Bizimana, decided the time had come to return. When she arrived in Tanzania in 1996, she was placed in Mtabila with her family, which today includes her parents, seven siblings, and a one-year-old daughter of her own. Bizimana returned to Burundi in mid-August through the voluntary repatriation program.
“I’m going back ahead of my family so I may get a foothold, and they may follow,” said the 23-year-old as she prepared to depart. Her daughter went with her.
Fears and doubts
Refugees’ reluctance to return to Burundi is driven both by fears of persistent insecurity there and by doubts over their country’s capacity to absorb them, despite the massive investments by the government and donors to do just that.
Samuél Nshimirimana, 22, fled Burundi in 1996 with his parents. His family, which has grown to 10 members, has nothing to return to.
“My uncle repatriated. When he visited our village, he found that our plot had been sold to someone else. The neighbours sold it because they thought we weren’t coming back,” he told IRIN.
In a separate May report, Rema Ministries noted that while Burundi’s reintegration programme was widely regarded as one of the most successful in Africa, “this narrative may have blinded some actors to the difficulties still faced by many returnees”.
Aside from access to land (which 70 percent of survey respondents said was a serious problem), the report said these hurdles included: difficulty finding work; food insecurity; poor access to healthcare; and children struggling to learn in Burundi’s French and Kirundi after growing up in an English-speaking country.
“Many of the returnees state[d] flatly that the government ‘lied’ about the living conditions they could expect on return,” the report added.
Mindful that many in Mtabila might ignore the latest deadline, IRRI and Rema Ministries cautioned that any “deportation procedures must be orderly and respect procedural guarantees”, and noted that the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights prohibited the mass expulsion of non-nationals.