Despite improvements, Burundi refugees still at risk

Burundian refugees at the Mahama refugee camp, Rwanda. Photo credit: Thomas Conan / EU / ECHO / CC BY-NC-ND

Despite some progress, the nearly yearlong Burundian refugee crisis — in which more than 250,000 people have fled the country’s ongoing political instability — continues to threaten to overwhelm the East African region amid scant signs the situation will improve soon.

The humanitarian situation looked set to deteriorate further when Rwanda threatened last month to try to transfer the nearly 74,000 Burundians seeking shelter there to third-party nations, including the United States, Canada and Australia. While Rwanda has not yet followed through on its threat — nor is it likely it would even be able to — the warning underscored just how tenuous the gains in assisting Burundi’s refugees have been and how easily such gains can be undone.

Warning signs

The crisis began in April 2015 when Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza announced he would stand for a third term, even though the constitution allows for only two. The announcement spooked a country that has seen frequent politically motivated violence, and less than two months after Nkurunziza’s declaration, more than 80,000 people had spilled out of the tiny East African nation into neighboring Tanzania, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Some even traveled as far as Uganda and Zambia.

By November 2015, aid agencies working in Tanzania, which has received the majority of those who have fled, were warning that the number of Burundian refugees was threatening to overwhelm available services. Although more than a thousand people still flee the country each week, the situation looked to be improving by the end of last year. Emergency interventions, along with the rehabilitation of two former refugee camps in Tanzania, eased some of the congestion there.

In Rwanda, a new camp — now hosting nearly 48,000 people — was already transitioning from emergency shelters to longer-term accommodation. And a regional response plan was released in December, building “on the foundations that were laid last year when the crisis started,” said Teresa Ongaro, a spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

The plan, based on an anticipated 330,000 Burundian refugees by the end of the year, called for a host of improvements to educational opportunities, protection efforts and energy sources to make them more sustainable. It came with a price tag of $313.8 million. So far only 9 percent of that has been funded, with money coming from the United States, the European Union and the United Nations’ Central Emergency Response Fund, among others.

Funding shortfalls

Advice for aid practitioners working in Burundi:

1. Use technology to leverage information sources and share knowledge widely. Despite the resource-scarce setting, the International Organization for Migration is desperate to acquire as much information about humanitarian needs within the country as possible. That’s why they set up a hotline number that people from across the country can call to report any problems they are facing. An interagency team then plots those complaints to see if there are areas where partners can target available resources to greatest effect, for example, by providing food relief to an area that has suffered recent flooding or droughts. The interagency hotline number is +257 22 27 40 10.

2. It’s never too early to start thinking about return. In the absence of a negotiated political response, it seems unlikely Burundian refugees will start returning to their home country. And there has been only halting progress toward any kind of agreement in recent months. UNHCR reports only 9,000 spontaneous returns since the crisis started. Still, IOM’s Kristina Mejo said it is important for agencies to start thinking about return now, so they can be fully prepared when it does happen. “It’s much cheaper to respond in a timely and accurate fashion,” she said, than to wait until refugees are already back and desperate for services.

3. Protect your staff. The political volatility within Burundi — and especially the capital, Bujumbura — continues. At least two aid workers were killed last year inside the country, according to the Aid Worker Security Database, and aid agencies say staff members have fled alongside thousands of others. Joseph Nduwumwami, the head of mission for the health care charity HealthNet TPO, said it’s important to remember that remaining staff members face the same concerns as the rest of the population, including road blocks and house-to-house weapons searches.

“We’re not talking about big bucks here,” said Rasmus Stuhr Jakobsen, head of Danish Refugee Council's emergency, safety and surge capacity division. Among their many responsibilities, DRC staff members work as camp managers in the Tanzanian sites. “It’s quite basic, fairly reasonable what is being asked for.”

And it’s critical, Jakobsen said, if the camps are to avoid tipping back into the overcrowding that aid workers reported last year. That’s possible, he warned, even with the two newly rehabilitated sites, because they are not nearly as well developed as Nyarugusu.

In Rwanda, upgrades to the Mahama refugee camp in the country’s southeast are well underway, including a permanent hospital and longer-term housing. But without additional funding “the very good work that we did last year in Rwanda would be very seriously jeopardized,” said the country’s UNHCR representative Azam Saber.

Humanitarian actors say the funding shortfall reflects the overwhelming amount of international need — more than 60 million people globally have fled their homes — and Burundi’s inability to draw attention from higher-profile refugee situations, especially the ongoing Mediterranean crossings into Europe. Funders are simply overstretched, they say, although relief may eventually arrive.

“I think the bulk of the money and the bulk of the support will come from our traditional donors,” Saber said. “That hopefully, and based on assurances that we received from some, will come in the near future.”

Humanitarian actors are also looking to nontraditional partners to shore up services where they can. That includes Kepler, a nonprofit African university program, which recently started teaching university-level courses in a Rwandan camp for Congolese refugees. Saber said he hopes the institution will soon expand its services to Mahama.

A political threat

Funding isn’t the only threat to the Burundian response. Regional politics can be just as damaging.

In early February, the Rwandan government came under criticism from the United Nations, among others, that it was recruiting Burundians from Mahama to overthrow the Nkurunziza government. In addition to denying the charges, Rwandan officials also unexpectedly announced the government’s intention to “immediately begin working with partners in the international community to plan the orderly and safe relocation of Burundian refugees to third countries.”

UNHCR rapidly intervened, receiving assurances from the government that no one would be forced out and that the borders of Rwanda would “always remain open to people fleeing persecution and violence in their countries of origin,” Saber said. He traveled with Rwandan refugee officials to Mahama to assure both refugees and humanitarians that services would continue.

Still, he said the announcement set back some of the work humanitarians were doing.

“I would not be honest if I tell you that it has not,” he said. “We have to get the boat back running. It will take some time, but hopefully, we will be there.”

Back in Burundi

For most Burundian refugees, though, the humanitarian shortages and security risks outside the country are less ominous than those that would come with returning or having stayed behind.

Inside Burundi, aid agencies say the humanitarian space is shrinking rapidly as local workers join those fleeing the country and resources remain scarce. Humanitarians are having a difficult time even determining the scope of the country’s need.

The International Organization for Migration is tracking displacements in three of the country’s 18 provinces. In January, the agency found more than 25,000 displaced persons — 86 percent of them because of the socio-political situation in the country. Among those who have left their homes, only 2 percent had access to sufficient food, while in 2015 only 7 percent benefited from a distribution of shelters and non-food items, including cooking equipment. Aid workers also have concerns about unmet health concerns, including unaddressed psychosocial trauma.

Kristina Mejo, who heads IOM in Burundi, said they started the tracking process, in part, to draw attention to the level of specific needs that remain inside the country.

“There’s information about what’s going on outside the country, but not as much inside about the humanitarian needs and how we can assist those populations,” she said. “There hasn’t been the attention to it, because we haven’t had the information.”

If they can talk with more specificity about what is needed, it will be easier to bring pressure to bear on the international community to deliver everything from food to medical supplies, as is happening in places as disparate as South Sudan and the Greek islands.

IOM is looking for additional funding to expand the tracking effort beyond the three current districts, but — as in the rest of the region — money has not been easy to come by.

And like their partners in the region, they are wondering: Can anything be done to change that?

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About the author

  • Andrew Green

    Andrew Green is a Devex Correspondent based in Berlin. His coverage focuses primarily on health and human rights and he has previously worked as Voice of America's South Sudan bureau chief and the Center for Public Integrity's web editor.