Things are getting interesting across the border. The Tanzanian government is sending in the troops. One of the refugee camps where Priya and I worked prior to coming to Burundi seems to finally be nearing closure.
For some that have been following this blog or the situation in Tanzania with the Burundian refugees, you’ll be aware that there are some 38,000 people sitting in a camp, most of whom are under pressure to “return” to their country of origin – i.e. here in Burundi. I put return in quotes given that most of them have been refugees for so long that the majority of the camp was either born there or at least were so young when the civil war hit that have no memory of ever living in Burundi. It renders the repatriation a bit more complicated.
There are other reasons as well. Primary education in the camp was stopped three years ago (in spite of it being a human rights violation). Secondary education was eliminated four years ago. These children and now young adults are in trouble if they want to integrate into what for them will be a new country.
The list of bad things – the consequences of what is likely to happen over the next weeks/months – gets quite long. For example you also have polygamous relationships, allowed in Tanzania but not Burundi. What happened during repatriation efforts in 2007-2009 is that many husbands rid themselves of superfluous wives and corresponding children as they left the camp setting. This not only is tragic emotionally for those who are cast aside, they are immediately in a precarious economic situation as they generally lose their potential access to land and/or their breadwinner.
As you might expect, the camp has a considerable amount of children that have no parents. These dependents are often readily brought into foster families while in the camps. Before you think too quickly that the foster parents are benevolent, it should be known that children are entitled to the same food rations as adults. Adopting children can be an economic boost for parents who often turn around and sell the extra food for a profit. Even worse, however, is that when it comes time to repatriate, the little adoptees suddenly go from being an economic asset to an economic liability. As such they are often jettisoned during, or soon after, the repatriation.
The refugees, most of whom fled their country as civil war broke out in 1993, are needless to say in a challenging situation. It also should be noted that a few of them are not angels. Some have committed ethnically-charged atrocities (not unrelated to those of their northern neighbor Rwanda – a country propelled into genocide a few months after war broke out in Burundi). Some have continued to cause trouble back in their home country from the camp. It’s no secret that refugees around the world have used camp settings (free food, shelter and healthcare) to free themselves up to be an influence in nasty situations that caused them to become a refugee in the first place. As such, it gives this notorious minority yet another reason not to return.
So how will this play out? I’ve been heavily involved in this situation for several years and I have to say it’s still anyone’s guess. Many will likely bow to the pressure once services are cut off in the camps and they’ll start heading across the border towards Burundi – hopefully by truck and not on foot with a gun at their backs. Given that we provide protection and logistical support on this side of the border, the more orderly they arrive the better. A forced repatriation of Rwandans in 1996 apparently caused many elderly and sick to die along the way.
Some refugees have told our staff in Tanzania that they will flee elsewhere. Third countries have been mentioned, for example Zambia, as places they may go to seek shelter. That may be a risky thing to do since I’m not sure that many governments will be rolling out the red carpet for them. Others have said they’ll try to pass themselves off as Tanzanian and melt into the population. Some have already done this successfully but that option is becoming increasingly difficult. The Tanzanian government is getting more effective at weeding out the pretenders.
We shall see. The pressure is mounting. We are in close communication with our colleagues on the Tanzania side as we all prepare for whatever scenario we are presented with. We know things could get ugly but we're hopeful that people will just get on the trucks and go. The camp is slated to be empty within a few months. Our transit centers on the Burundi side are ready. Trucks are in place. Warehouses are stocked with repatriation kits. We have the capacity to process more than five thousand per week. We and other partners are also already well into our reintegration planning and preparation for when we get them to their destination in Burundi.
Sadly, even if all goes well, this tense transition for these refugee may only just be the beginning of what will likely be a long and difficult road.