Refugees from Burundi arrive at the Mahama camp in Rwanda. The political crisis in Burundi has driven thousands to seek refuge in neighboring countries. Photo by: Thomas Conan / ECHO / CC BY-ND

A failed coup and ongoing political conflict in Burundi have sparked a regional refugee crisis and stalled much-needed development projects in one of the world’s poorest countries.

This after Burundi spent the past decade attempting to overcome a post-independence period marred by a brutal civil war played out largely along ethnic lines. The leaders of the two major ethnic groups, the Hutus and the Tutsis, struck a cease-fire agreement in 2003 and two years later, the country’s parliament elected Pierre Nkurunziza — a former Hutu militia leader — president.

The 10 years of relative peace allowed humanitarian partners to transition from emergency relief to long-term development projects in a country consistently ranked among the five poorest in the world. Now many of those partners have evacuated, as the country’s political situation has unraveled over the past month.

Despite a two-term constitutional limit, Nkurunziza announced in late April that he would be running for a third stint. He argues that his first five-year term does not count toward the limit, because he was elected by parliament, rather than directly by the people. Protests started in the capital Bujumbura immediately after his announcement, even as thousands of people began to flee into neighboring countries.

On May 13, with the president out of the country, the recently fired intelligence chief announced he had taken over the government. The coup attempt fizzled within days. Nkurunziza returned and — according to opposition reports — has begun a targeted crackdown on perceived regime opponents.

Zedi Feruzi, head of the opposition party Union for Peace and Development, and his bodyguard were killed Saturday evening in a drive-by shooting in Bujumbura. There has been no information yet as to who was responsible for the killing, but many opposition figures have since gone into hiding, fearing for their safety.

Whether the fear of reprisal attacks is justified or not, the flow of refugees out of Burundi continues. Aid agencies are now grappling with the refugee influx, even as they continue to monitor the situation inside Burundi to determine whether emergency services will be needed. At the same time, most long-term development partners are in a holding pattern, waiting to see when — or if — they can return.

No signs of abating

There are few indications that Burundi’s political crisis will be resolved soon. Nkurunziza has already announced the delay of parliamentary elections, originally scheduled for May 26, until early June. It is still unclear if the presidential vote will go ahead June 26 as planned.

At least 20 people have died during street protests in Bujumbura and reports indicate they are growing more violent.

Yet the most immediate humanitarian crisis is playing out just across Burundi’s borders — in Rwanda, Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees reports more than 105,000 people have fled and are crowding into transit sites. At least 70,000 have traveled to Tanzania, 26,000 to Rwanda and 9,000 to the Congo.

And conditions are harsh. Twenty-nine people have already died in an outbreak of cholera among the 40,000 refugees who have arrived at Kagunga, a border town on the shores of Lake Tanganyika in Tanzania, according to UNHCR. Partners say there is an urgent need for clean water and sanitation facilities to stop the spread.

In neighboring Rwanda, American Refugee Committee workers are hastily constructing the new Mahama Refugee Camp in the country’s east. ARC’s Rwanda Country Director Frederic Auger said they are planning for at least 60,000 arrivals, with a worst-case scenario of as many as 100,000.

The influx began in the days after Nkurunziza announced his plans to stand for a third term, peaking at 3,000 new arrivals in one day.

“It was alarming and overwhelming,” the country director said. “We feared that we could lose control.”

But despite some shortages of water and supplies, “we have welcomed more than 20,000 people and everybody has a roof to sleep under and basic health services.” Now, as the flow of refugees has slowed, humanitarians have been able to focus on addressing malnutrition, even as they shore up the new camp.

Auger credits the speedy response to “good preparedness of the humanitarian community” in Rwanda, who — aware of the region’s volatility — had contingency plans in place for a massive influx of refugees.

Not enough funding, capacity for emergency response

Gaps will remain, though, cautioned Johan Eldebo, a senior humanitarian policy adviser at World Vision. As a result of Burundi’s own transition from emergency response to long-term development, the supplies and expertise necessary for a humanitarian response were not in place.

“Look at the status of the refugee camps in Tanzania” for Burundian refugees during that country’s civil war, he said. “It was huge 10 years ago. Now there is not much, because it’s not necessary.” And while agencies and regional governments can put contingency plans in place, “there’s not very much funding or capacity around to set up refugee camps, until you’re sure what the actual scale and timeframe of the response will be.”

Still, Eldebo said World Vision, like other agencies in the area, has been able to draw on its current operations in the region — it is active in Tanzania, Rwanda and the Congo — along with “our current understanding of the context and to pull in global resources, global emergency response teams with that capacity to provide emergency support where necessary.”

And that support may be needed indefinitely. Humanitarians are already talking about the long-term implications of the current refugee influx.

“The refugees that are here are not planning to go back quickly, unless there is a drastic political change,” Auger said. And if there is “no change and the third-term option is confirmed, then the refugees might stay here for long and maybe more will be coming, as well.”

Forced to wait and see — and be nimble

Meanwhile, back in Burundi, many of the development agencies active there have been forced to take a wait-and-see approach to continuing — or refocusing — their work.

Catholic Relief Services has been in the country since 1963 — a year after Burundi gained its independence from Belgium. The organization is in the midst of launching a food assistance program, along with some additional field activities in the country’s north.

Like many agencies, it is not yet transitioning to an emergency response inside Burundi, because “there is currently no significant displacement of people within the country,” said Kim Pozniak, CRS’ communications manager. The organization however is preparing “for the potential need for an emergency response in case the situation worsens.”

But given the uncertainty, CRS was one of the many organizations to evacuate staff from Burundi. Now, even as it rejiggers training and meetings, it is evaluating when and where it might be able to return.

Pozniak said while they are anticipating possible insecurity in Bujumbura throughout the election cycle, much of the rest of the country has remained calm. If that holds, the team plans to return some staff members to the north “and will hopefully begin some level of field activities in late June or early July.”

Despite suspended services and evacuated staff, the political crisis did not catch the humanitarian community off guard. Contingency plans were discussed months in advance and are being enacted, agencies said.

The International Rescue Committee, for example, considered how to incorporate specific emergency responses into the work they were already doing, which includes child and women’s protection, Country Director Richard Crothers said, “and then focus on various scenarios of severity, pre-identifying areas of support elsewhere within the IRC.”

And the aid community knows to remain nimble. Though the international focus has been on assisting refugees, Crothers warned the impact of the political crisis on areas outside the capital is not yet known.

“The country is small and interconnected,” he said. “The partial paralysis of Bujumbura is necessarily having an impact on the interior of the country,” which may ultimately require additional humanitarian intervention that IRC is prepared to support.

‘Desperate’ need to think long term

Some organizations simply don’t have that capability, though. While IRC, a crisis organization, has the capacity to transition to emergency response, many of the groups working in Burundi do not. Because their focus is solely on long-term development, their only option is to wait for the crisis to end.

And yet it is these kinds of projects, IRC’s Crothers said, that could have helped to mitigate the current crisis and prevent future ones. One possible driver of the refugee exodus, he said, is that people who returned from Tanzania after the civil war “were never successfully reintegrated from the previous time in exile. The economic hardship in these areas has been tremendous and aid has been almost nonexistent.”

So, in the midst of this episode, when Tanzania announced it was opening its borders to Burundian refugees, “their desperate situation made flight an easier decision.” Which is why, even after calm returns, he hopes some international attention will remain focused on Burundi.

“We desperately need to be thinking long term as we are addressing current needs,” Crothers concluded.

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About the author

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    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.