1. Home
  2. East Africa
  3. Burundi

More to it than just land - lessons from Burundi

A recently returned former refugee takes part in a meeting about land disputes in the Burundian village of Nyabigina Francois Nitunga/Rema Ministries
A recent returnee takes part in a meeting about land disputes

More than half a million Burundian refugees have returned home over the last 10 years as the effects of a 2000 peace accord took hold. Many have returned to their land, and most have received assistance with shelter, food, health and education.

For a country still devastated by a 1993-2005 civil war and decades of underdevelopment, the physical reintegration of such a large number of returnees is widely regarded as a tremendous success story.

But closer analysis of challenges faced by refugees once they come back to Burundi offers instructive insight into the less immediately visible aspects of homecoming after prolonged absences. In many cases in Burundi, because of brutal ethnic clashes in the early 1970s, these lasted 40 years.

The hardships encountered by returnees go some way to explaining why some 35,000 Burundians remain in a camp in Tanzania, despite having lost their refugee status. Once a 31 December deadline to leave expires, they risk deportation.

“Reintegration is not an event, it is a long process that can take even generations,” said Theodore Mbazumutima, project manager with Rema Ministries, a Bujumbura-based NGO that published a detailed paper* on the Burundian process in May 2012.

“There is no such thing as a packaged answer to everybody’s problems. Sometimes pre-packaged answers can help to avert a serious crisis but they cannot stand the test of time for ever,” he added.

“Reintegration needs to be reimagined and redefined because the personal dimension, the identity issues are not always taken into consideration.”

This overview of problems faced by returnees in Burundi is drawn from: an interview with Mbazumutima; the Rema Ministries report*; a research paper published by the UN Refugee Agency**; and interviews with international conflict-resolution NGO African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes (ACCORD), and the Commission nationale de terre et autre biens (CNTB - National Commission on Land and Other Property).


With a population density averaging around 260 people per square kilometre - and double that in some places - scarcity of land to farm is an issue not only for returnees but all Burundians, 90 percent of whom work as subsistence farmers.

As well as being virtually the only potential source of income, land in Burundi also has considerable cultural and social value, with specific plots closely linked to sense of identity.

For the most part, returning refugees who fled Burundi during the civil war have little trouble regaining possession of the plots they left. But for what is termed the “1972 caseload”, disputes are legion because Burundian law grants ownership to anyone who has occupied land for 30 years or more and in many cases the government allowed those who stayed in Burundi (commonly referred to as “residents”) to settle on vacated plots.

The CNTB was set up to resolve disputes which local officials are unable to settle. It generally does so by splitting individual plots between returnees and residents. Not only does this often result in plots too small to generate sufficient food to feed a household, but the CNTB’s rulings tend to be overruled when residents challenge them in the courts.

Currently, CNTB has about 10,000 unresolved disputes on its books, the vast majority related to land.

A more sustainable solution to land disputes being mooted is the creation of special tribunals dedicated to restitution issues linked to Burundi’s several waves of external displacement.

The involvement of external mediation - such as that conducted by ACCORD - whereby agreements are reached by consensus, tend not to be revisited in the courts.

Thousands of returnees who ended up landless, or who were classed as “vulnerable”, have been housed in what were first termed “peace villages” and then Rural Integrated Villages (VRI), of which there are nine, in three southern provinces. The VRI initiative has had mixed success - poverty levels there have been a particular cause of concern - and is in the process of evolution.

See also: Land key obstacle to reintegration

Employment and economic diversification

The economy of Burundi, one of the poorest countries in the world, is based on subsistence agriculture, in which some 90 percent of the population is engaged. Few farmers grow enough to sell much of a surplus. The private sector is minimal, and offers few employment opportunities.

Such opportunities are particularly important for former refugees who did not farm while out of the country; for them regaining a plot without agricultural training is not very conducive to economic self-sufficiency.

Many refugees received some form of skills-training in camps, such as carpentry, or operated small businesses such as shops or bicycle taxi operations, but find themselves unable ply such trades back home for lack of materials, capital, access to credit, recognition of professional qualifications gained in exile, or the social networks that facilitate economic activity.

Membership fees charged by trade associations in Burundi are often beyond the means of returning refugees.

Many returning refugees speak fluent Swahili and thus constitute a valuable, but untapped, resource for teaching a language and thereby increasing Burundi’s economic linkages with Swahili speaking countries in the region, such as Kenya, Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).


Many documents obtained in exile related to identity, education or work are not recognized by Burundian authorities. For example, returnees born outside Burundi may have Swahili or Congolese names, but on returning home Burundian officials often changed them so they sounded more like Kirundi names. This has implications for accessing education since certificates obtained outside Burundi differ from students’ new “official” identity details. Students returning from Tanzania, where Swahili and English are the official languages, also often have to cope with learning in French and Kirundi and under a different teaching system.

Marriages conducted outside Burundi have often had to be redone on return unless they were originally conducted in a consulate or in the presence of a state official. The non-recognition of marriages conducted in camps has an effect on family cohesion, in several cases because wives are abandoned by their husbands for younger women.

Discrimination and reconciliation

Disputes over land are but one manifestation of tension between those who stayed and returnees. Those coming back from DRC are sometimes referred to by residents as `Babembe’ - a DRC ethnic group - with the implication that they are foreigners. (Rema Ministry’s paper takes as its Kirundi title a quote from one returnee: “Umenga ntituri Abarundi” - “It is as if we were not Burundian”). Others have been labelled “Tanzanians” or “UNHCR” by residents. This sense of being treated as outsiders is more keenly felt by returnees who do not speak Kirundi.

There is a common perception among returnees that officials involved in dispute resolution, especially with regard to land, tend to be biased towards those who occupied their land in their absence. Residents, on the other hand, have expressed resentment against the returnees over the reintegration benefits they receive from international agencies.

Another social integration hurdle is the virtual lack of any programmes to tackle the trauma experienced by refugees, both during the events that led to their departure and during their years in camps.

Food insecurity

Returnees’ ability to lead full, productive lives is compromised by high levels of food insecurity in Burundi.

Burundi’s food security is explored in detail here.

Promises, promises

Several reports point out that smooth reintegration in Burundi has been frustrated by the gap between the expectations and actual experience of both returnees and residents.

“Much of the current conflict between returnees and locals at the community level is due to false promises made to each group,” according to the paper published by UNHCR.

“The government promised returnees that they would receive their land and be compensated for any land that could not be reinstated,” it added, noting that such promises were central to refugees’ decision to return.

Residents “on the other hand, were told they would also be compensated for land redistributed to returnees. In a country that is already overpopulated and experiencing land scarcity, it is evident that neither of these promises were feasible.”

In many cases, residents were given little information about the arrival of returning refugees.


*Umenga Ntituri Abarundi (It is as if we were not Burundian) - Rethinking Reintegration in Burundi - Rema Ministries, May 2012

**Back to the land: the long-term challenges of refugee return and reintegration in Burundi, by Sonja Fransen and Kati Kushminder of the Maastrict Graduate School of Governance, published in August 2012 as part of the New Issues in Refugee Research series of UNHCR’s Policy Development and Evaluation Service.

For more stories on migration, please visit our In-Depth Crossing into the Unknown

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

Share this article

Get the day’s top headlines in your inbox every morning

Starting at just $5 a month, you can become a member of The New Humanitarian and receive our premium newsletter, DAWNS Digest.

DAWNS Digest has been the trusted essential morning read for global aid and foreign policy professionals for more than 10 years.

Government, media, global governance organisations, NGOs, academics, and more subscribe to DAWNS to receive the day’s top global headlines of news and analysis in their inboxes every weekday morning.

It’s the perfect way to start your day.

Become a member of The New Humanitarian today and you’ll automatically be subscribed to DAWNS Digest – free of charge.

Become a member of The New Humanitarian

Support our journalism and become more involved in our community. Help us deliver informative, accessible, independent journalism that you can trust and provides accountability to the millions of people affected by crises worldwide.