Over the past six years I have either directly or indirectly been working with a population of Burundian refugees living in northwestern Tanzania. I’ve blogged about it from time to time and each time the discussion has involved something about their projected return to Burundi. Since 2002 nearly a half million refugees who fled the country in 1993 have returned. This group of 35,000 or so is all that remains (with the exception of about 162,000 who fled conflict in 1972 but are slated to be naturalized Tanzanian citizens). They are the hardest of the hard. They’ve been pressured to return for years and they have refused. The Tanzanian government has lost patience, as has the international community. In August the Tanzanian government removed their refugee status and told them that the camp will be closed by the end of the year – whether they choose to go voluntarily or not. After no less than six cries of wolf, the wolf finally arrived.
So far, except for the resistance of the first couple of days, nothing of the sort has materialized. In fact the contrary has happened. Several days into the process, people began coming forward in large numbers with a desire to get on a bus and get this over with. At one point there was a backlog of around 6,000 people who had gathered at the departure center which only has a capacity of a few hundred. While that seems strange, particularly after so many of them claimed they’d rather die than go back to Burundi, there is a theory as to why. It’s known that there were "intimidators" in the camp that were putting pressure on refugees to stay (for reasons that I won’t speculate on here) – even threatening them and their families if they were to return. While there may be multiple motivations for this pressure, my thinking is that what tipped the scale in the direction towards getting the hell out of the camp is that the risk to them from the intimidators was increasingly compromised. Once hundreds were crossing the border they could flee without repercussion.
All indication is that things are under control and, though we don't know how many remain (some have already fled elsewhere to avoid returning) it seems that we are well over halfway. I was recently in a regional meeting in Nairobi with UNHCR, IOM and donors and the general communication was that though there have been glitches, people are quite happy that has finally started and that there are no major complications.
I have yet to visit the process since it began in vigor. I was there just a couple of days before it began but then I was off to New York, then Nairobi and tomorrow to Rwanda. I will likely make my way down there early next week, schedule permitting.
It's important that the process continues at this aggressive pace. There is another situation brewing that could complicate things. The advancement of the rebels in the Congo are creating displacement, some of which is likely to come our direction. Early last week I assisted in evacuating some of our staff from our organization's operations there who are now here in Bujumbura. If Congolese in South Kivu are forced from their homes and the government here is welcoming them, we'll need access to those resources (i.e. trucks, drivers, etc.) we are using to support the returnees.
Never a dull moment.