Grappling with repatriation, relocation of returnees and IDPs

UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
Saturday 7 January 2006

BURUNDI: Grappling with repatriation, relocation of returnees and IDPs

BUJUMBURA, 8 Nov 2004 (IRIN) - Getting a clear picture of the situation of Burundian refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) is as difficult as walking through a brightly lit maze where the pathway is clearly visible, but all too often leads to a dead end.

The problem is that too many different organisations are dealing with these categories of people and seem to have overlapping duties with several grey areas of responsibility. So, just when it appears that solutions have been found to the plight of IDPs and refugees, new problems arise.

There is the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the agency in charge of refugee matters. UNHCR works with donors, partner NGOs and the government of Burundi in repatriating and reintegrating returnees. There is the Ministry of Reinsertion and Reinstallation of the Displaced and the Repatriated, and the National Committee for the Rehabilitation of War Victims. These two government bodies deal with both the refugees and IDPs.

All these organisations work to ensure the hundreds of thousands of displaced Burundians resettle and reintegrate properly into their original homes.

Burundi's problems are complex but peace is slowly returning to the country after just over a decade of civil war. Those who fled the country during the last 11 years, as well as those who fled during earlier civil strife in 1972, are now returning home. Even those in IDP camps are returning to their homes.

Burundian refugees alight from a UNHCR truck upon their return home from Tanzania on 22 October at the Mugano transit centre in the northeastern province of Muyinga.
Available figures attest to the return home of tens of thousands of Burundians, as their country moves from a transitional political arrangement set up in 2001 that will now end in April 2005 with general elections.

UNHCR in Burundi said at least 220,000 Burundians had returned home since 2002. In 2004 alone, the UN agency had - by 31 October - facilitated the return of 85,859 refugees. During the same period, another 5,758 returned home on their own volition.

UNHCR added that although "almost all" returnees had come from Tanzania, "more than" 250,000 Burundian refugees remained in camps there. It said other countries hosting Burundian refugees included the Benin, Central African Republic, Kenya, Mozambique and Uganda.

As the refugees and IDPs return home the Burundian government, the UNHCR and partner NGOs have established mechanisms to help with the process. The Ministry of Reinsertion and Reinstallation of the Displaced and the National Committee for Rehabilitation of War Victims also have various reintegration programmes.

UNHCR works with several partners, mostly NGOs, as well as local authorities, to oversee the return process and the eventual settlement of the refugees in their collines (the smallest administrative unit in a commune) of origin.

Returnee procedure

On 22 October, a UN team travelled to the northeastern province of Muyinga, on the Burundi-Tanzania border, to witness the return of some 292 refugees.

A UNHCR official uses a loud speaker to brief some 292 newly arrived returnees at the Mugano transit camp, in Muyinga Province, on 22 October 2004.
The returnees, travelling in a convoy of UNHCR trucks, were escorted to the border by Tanzanian UNHCR officials and were met at the Kobero crossing point by a team of UN officials and other visitors, who included the regional coordinator for the American Aid Programme for Refugees, Russel Schiebel. He was on a familiarisation tour of the country.

The returnees were then taken to the Mugano transit centre, in Muyinga, where UNHCR officials and those of partner NGOs, such as Medecins Sans Frontieres, GTZ, African Humanitarian Aid and Iteka, took part in a registration and briefing process. The returnees also received a repatriation package, which included a three-month food ration provided by the UN World Food Programme (WFP), cooking utensils, blankets, mats, jerry cans and simple farming implements.

One refugee, Donatien Nteshimana, fled Burundi in 1993 with his family. He was now returning home without his two children, who died in a Tanzanian refugee camp, and his wife who deserted him. Alone, Nteshimana, 42, now faces an uncertain future.

"I do not even know what I am returning to," he said.

Donatien Nteshimana, 42 (centre) among other returnees during a briefing at the Mugano transit camp in Muyinga Province.
However, he said, having learnt carpentry in a camp he now hoped this trade would provide him a livelihood once resettled in his colline of Mbambalangwe, in Muyinga.

John Higiro, who at 18 years of age has never gone to school, said he hoped to rejoin his mother in the commune of Kibonge, also in Muyinga, and resume working the half-hectare ranch he fled in 2000, fearing an escalation of violence in his commune.

"I did not want to die," he said.

John Higiro, 18, one of the returnees who returned home on 22 October 2004 from a refugee camp in Tanzania. He fled Burundi in 2000.
Nteshimana and Higiro's cases reflect the issues and challenges with which the larger group of returnees is faced: illiteracy, poverty, and the lack of access to farmland and of capital to start income-generating activities. These issues are even more of a challenge to returning women and girls, who have to cope with caring for their families while burdened by limited access to resources.

If returnees arrive at the transit centre on weekdays and if their collines or communes of origin are close by, they leave for home on the same day on transport provided by UNHCR.

The head of UNHCR in Muyinga, Adama Basse, told IRIN that sometimes, when the roads to the returnees’ homes are inaccessible, they ferry their belongings by donkey-drawn carts or walk.


Basse said UNHCR was involved in several projects aimed at helping the returnees to reintegrate into society in the northern and northeastern provinces of Kirundo, Muyinga and Karuzi.

She said the agency had helped build 5,730 homes in the three provinces for the returning families and that a further 2,900 houses were under construction.

The agency also helped build 15 primary schools, is building another three and rehabilitated three more. It has also helped put up social halls and offices in Muyinga and Kirundo.

A primary school in Giteranyi, Muyinga Province, that was built with the support of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Burundi.


Basse said a major challenge in the repatriation of the refugees was the movement of the returnees to their communes, especially in areas where there were no roads. She added that poverty was the other major challenge and that the returnees mainly reported that housing, medical services and schooling were what they needed most.

On the issue of access to land and the resolution of land disputes, Basse said these were handled at the communal level with the participation of local authority officials. Representatives of local human rights NGOs, such as Iteka and the Federation of Women Lawyers in Burundi (FIDA), also take part in the resolution of land disputes.

She added that teams from these NGOs, such as those from FIDA, often visited the returnees to advice them on their legal rights, especially vulnerable groups such as women and children.

Asked about the drop of returnee figures, which reached some 9,000 per month by mid-2004, Basse said several factors could have contributed to this. She said the harvest period in Tanzania, the postponement of elections in Burundi and security concerns were just some reasons why some refugees might have delayed their return home. The school year could also be a factor, as many parents waited for their children to complete their school terms, she said.

UNHCR operations

According to the UNHCR public information officer in Burundi, David Short, the agency's two main operational activities in the country are the repatriation and assistance in the reintegration of Burundian refugees. UNHCR also cares for Congolese refugees in Burundi - who fled fighting in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in June.

A group of Congolese Tutsi refugees, known as Banyamulenge, at the Gasorwe refugee camp in Burundi's Muyinga Province. The refugees fled fighting in eastern DRC in June.
Short said besides the more than 250,000 refugees in camps in the Kagera and Kigoma regions in western Tanzania, some 470,000 Burundians continue to live in Tanzania, outside camps. They live in towns, villages and settlements and include 200,000 so-called "old caseload" refugees who fled in 1972.

In Burundi, Short said, the returnees were concentrated in the provinces bordering Tanzania, such as Ruyigi, Muyinga, Makamba and Rutana. UNHCR's plan is to repatriate 300,000 Burundians between July 2004 and December 2005.

The agency has launched an appeal to fund its repatriation and reintegration programme. Activities under the plan include the provision of protection, community services, food, water, crop production, education, health, nutrition, shelter and domestic support.

UNHCR said this programme needed $21 million for the period to the end on 2004, of which $17.4 million is for activities in Burundi. The agency said the appeal called for a further $62.23 million for repatriation and reintegration in 2005, of which $50.45 million would be for operations in Burundi.

Government input

Since the establishment of a transitional government three years ago, Burundi has been managed in accordance with a Peace and Reconciliation Accord signed in August 2000 in Arusha, Tanzania. It is under this accord that the CNRS was established to implement the resettlement and reintegration of refugees and IDPs.

The chairman of the National Committee for the Rehabilitation of War Victims, Frederic Bamvunginyumvira, told IRIN on 19 October in Bujumbura that the committee's objectives included solving the many problems facing returnees and IDPs, such as security and political and reconstruction issues.

"Regarding reconstruction, it was agreed that in order to rebuild the country, it was necessary to gather all the war-scattered Burundians and to plan what to do about them once they are back home - that is where our mission comes in," he said.

The commission, he said, had a five-phase mission: the repatriation of the victims; handling property and land issues; the resettlement process; social reinsertion; and the country's rebuilding process.

Moreover, he said, the commission's sphere of activity directly dealt with the repatriated people, the IDPs, those dispersed, those gathered - even war-hit hill dwellers," Bamvunginyumvira said.

"But the [Burundian] parliament has also decided to add another category called the vulnerable ones - made up of street children, HIV-infected children, the elderly and the disabled," he said.

Legally, the commission derives its legitimacy from the Arusha accord, Burundi's constitution and a parliamentary act of 13 December 2002 that outlined the committee's mission, organisation and competence.

Bamvunginyumvira said the commission's budget of some 608 billion Burundian francs ($608 million) was for the rehabilitation of 1.2 million Burundians who required 240,000 homes during the construction phase. However, he said, the commission’s operations had not proceeded at the desired pace.

"We have not yet been able to work as wished, due to the unavailability of funds," he said.

Using government funds, the committee has distributed iron sheets to returnees who have expressed their willingness to return to their home areas. It has also provided the vulnerable with food, blankets and transport. He said this was mainly done in the suburbs of Bujumbura, but that money had run out.

"It must be understood that what we are doing, as far as the iron sheet distribution is concerned, must not be mistaken with the actual phase of reconstruction," Bamvunginyumvira said. "It is only one of the resettlement aspects, not reconstruction. With the iron sheets, we are only helping the returnees to secure a shelter, especially those who have returned to find nowhere to go and nothing to call home."

Regarding property and land issues, Bamvunginyumvira said the committee had set up a unit to deal regularly with these issues. The committee's officers go to the field to assess the magnitude of the situation and hold discussion with those concerned.

The committee has yet to embark on the reconstruction phase because a national reconstruction scheme has not been set up, as stipulated by the Arusha accord.


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