A plan to repatriate some 200,000 Burundian refugees living in Tanzanian camps has raised concerns that many who fled the country to escape violence may be forced back home, just as Burundi’s 2020 elections increase the prospects of a new political crisis.
In August, Burundian and Tanzanian officials announced that 2,000 refugees would be repatriated every week starting from 1 October. The plan has not yet resulted in forced returns, but pressure is building on the refugees to leave.
Some NGOs delivering aid in the country told The New Humanitarian that access to camps was being restricted and that their ability to provide services that would encourage refugees to stay was being curtailed.
In a televised speech last week, Tanzanian President John Magufuli said Burundi is now “stable” and that refugees would not be granted citizenship in Tanzania, as was once the case.
“Go back to your home,” Magufuli said. “Don’t insist on staying in Tanzania as refugees.”
More than 400,000 people have fled Burundi since 2015, when President Pierre Nkurunziza ran for a disputed third term in office, triggering waves of political violence that left hundreds dead.
While refugees were initially welcomed by Tanzania, the government’s policy has hardened. Residents spread across three overcrowded camps now face a string of restrictions on their daily lives, which research suggests is a key reason many return.
The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, said forced returns could put refugees’ lives at risk due to ongoing human rights abuses in Burundi.
“We continue to urge the governments of Tanzania and Burundi to ensure that any refugee return remains voluntary and that no refugee or asylum seeker is returned to Burundi against their will,” UNHCR spokesperson Babar Baloch told TNH.
Senior aid officials working on the ground said a sudden surge in repatriations would be hard to manage, with transit centres in Burundi under-resourced and NGOs needing months to establish funding for programmes to assist returnees.
The aid workers, who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the issue, told TNH they remain unsure what will happen in the coming weeks, especially as Tanzanian officials have made similarly inflammatory statements in the past.
Since 1 October, two convoys have left the camps, repatriatring roughly 900 refugees as part of a pre-existing voluntary returns operation that has seen 75,000 refugees go back to Burundi since August 2017.
While there have been no forced returns yet, aid officials said markets and shops inside the three camps have been closed down by government officials in recent weeks, damaging refugees’ livelihoods and leaving them more dependent on food distributions. Posters have also been put up claiming Burundi is now safe.
Two refugees who spoke to TNH via WhatsApp described an atmosphere of “increased fear” in the camps. “We live in constant fear of being repatriated by force,” said one resident of Nduta camp who asked not to be named.
An aid worker at one camp said Tanzanian officials have requested that the shelters of refugees who have returned to Burundi are dismantled rather than being offered to other refugees who live in lower-quality dwellings, as was previously the case.
Roughly 10,000 refugees who signed up to be voluntarily repatriated over the past two years but later withdrew from the process have meanwhile been “pressured” to explain their decision to government officials, another aid worker added.
Aid groups say they are generally facing a more restrictive climate, especially following comments from Tanzania’s home affairs minister at the end of August.
The minister, Kangi Lugola, warned that any individual or NGO that hindered the return of refugees would “face the wrath” of President Magufuli. Lugola also told the BBC that the “refugees have until 1 October to repatriate. After that we will send them back whether they want to or not.”
Such rhetoric has increased fear among the predominantly Tanzanian nationals working for NGOs in the camps, the aid officials said, although TNH was not informed of any specific threats or harassment.
Organisations that help unaccompanied children find new homes in the camps when their foster families are repatriated have been asked to abandon their efforts, since the government wants as many people to leave as possible..
Some aid agencies are also finding it increasingly difficult to get permits for international staff to work in Tanzania, as well as permits for personnel to work specifically in the camps.
Refugees not welcome
Tanzania was previously known for its welcoming stance towards refugees, including some 170,000 Burundians who were granted citizenship rights in 2009, having lived in exile since the 1970s.
Pressure on new arrivals has been building since January 2018, when Tanzania withdrew from the the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF) – an international initiative aimed at helping both refugees and refugee-hosting countries.
“The vast majority are returning because of push factors from the Tanzanian government.”
The government has since banned refugees from leaving the camps to work, trade, or attend school, and has closed common markets that offered economic opportunities to both refugees and host communities.
Automatic refugee status – which was previously granted to all new arrivals from Burundi – has also been scrapped. The closing of small shops and markets in the camps, since August, has added to these existing restrictions.
“Life has become very difficult,” said the resident of Nduta camp.
The new repatriation plan comes as Burundi gears up for presidential elections next May. Nkurunziza has said he will not stand for another term, but rights groups have accused the country’s ruling party of silencing opposition supporters.
Even without forced returns, there is concern that additional pressure from Tanzania could push some refugees to leave for Burundi or seek asylum in another country.
Many past returnees cite poor conditions in the camps as a motivation for returning, said Thijs Van Laer, programme director at the International Refugee Rights Initiative (IRRI), which has studied the returns process.
“The vast majority are returning because of push factors from the Tanzanian government,” said Van Laer.
When they get back to Burundi, returnees find “limited” support, according to IRRI research, while some have faced threats and physical abuse from the Imbonerakure, a ruling party youth group widely described as a “militia”.
For now, the added pressure has not meant additional numbers of refugees signing up to be voluntarily returned. As one aid official put it: “That should make clear the level of fear that people have of going back to Burundi.”