At least 6,000 Burundian refugees left camps in western Tanzania for home in December 2003, indicating increasing confidence in Burundi's peace process and a possible beginning of a large-scale repatriation, aid workers told IRIN on Wednesday.
"There seems to be a steady stream [of returnees], and if more crossing points are opened up it looks like the numbers will increase," said Jesse Kamstra, the project coordinator for the Tanganyika Christian Refugee Service, an organisation managing refugee camps in Kigoma Region's Kibondo District in the northwest.
The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) transported registered returnees into Burundi through crossing points in Kibondo and Ngara districts.
Refugees in camps further south in Kasulu and Kigoma regions organised their own journeys home, because UNHCR was said to be awaiting the completion of a security assessment in southeastern Burundi before opening more crossing points, officials said.
The signing in November 2003 of a power-sharing agreement between the government and the main Hutu rebel group in Burundi, the Conseil national pour la defense de la democratie-Forces pour la defense de la democratie of Pierre Nkurunziza, was welcomed by the estimated 324,000 Burundian refugees in Tanzanian camps. However, most of them chose to wait and see the agreement implemented before going home.
At least 5,470 Burundians left Kibondo in December 2003 - up from 3,000 in November, Kamstra told IRIN.
Other aid workers said the fact that refugees were beginning to leave Kanembwa camp, where many of the intellectuals who fled Burundi's civil war have spent the last 10 years, pointed to a rising confidence in the country's peace process and readiness to go home.
The number of refugees leaving camps in Ngara - where there are 88,000 refugees - is stable, at about 1,000 a month, said Mark Wigley, an official at Norwegian People's Aid, one of UNHCR's implementing partners in the district. He added that the refugees would probably "wait and see" over the next couple of months.
"But everything seems right for repatriation in large numbers - all the signals are positive," he said. "There is no real push right now as people are confident that their land will still be there when they get back."
Aid workers said the delay affecting the repatriation of Burundians from Kasulu was because the border crossing into southern Burundi had not yet been opened up, due to security concerns. Nonetheless, some refugees are making their own way home.
"Most of the repatriation here is spontaneous," Paul Davies, the programme officer for Africare in Kasulu, said. "The refuges are organising their own transport and heading for Makamba, Rutanda, Ruyigi."
He said some were handing in their ration cards and others were not, just in case they need to return.
The UNHCR's public information assistant in Dar es Salaam, Frederick Mwinjabi, said a security assessment of southeastern Burundi had not yet been completed, but the tripartite meeting between UNHCR and the governments of Burundi and Tanzania due to be held from 19 to 21 January would discuss repatriation, especially with a view to opening up new crossing points.
"We need to get prepared before people start going back en masse," he said. "When we are sure that it is safe, we will encourage people to go home."
He added that the repatriation of some 150,160 Burundian refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo had not yet begun, but was being looked into.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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