Pressure is mounting on tens of thousands of Burundian nationals who fled to Tanzania during the civil war in the early 1990s to return home, despite their reluctance to leave.
Burundi’s civil war ended in 2005 but it remains in a state of acrimonious political deadlock, with widespread reports of assassinations and human rights abuses since elections in 2010.
After several postponed deadlines since 2009, Mtabila camp, in western Tanzania and home to almost 38,000 Burundians, is set to close at end-2012, with repatriations scheduled to take place between April and November, according to an agreement reached by both countries and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
Following a detailed questionnaire conducted by UNHCR and Tanzanian officials in December 2011, 33,708 refugees in Mtabila were found to be “not in need of international protection”.
In the absence of a successful appeal against this unprecedented determination, those who “are unwilling, without justifiable grounds, to return to Burundi, will find themselves liable to be dealt with under relevant Tanzanian laws, including those for immigration control and management”, according to the communiqué released on 22 February after the tripartite meeting.
Tanzania has hosted tens of thousands of refugees from Burundi over the past four decades, but is now “resolute” that the camp will close at the end of this year.
UNHCR Burundi representative Clementine Nkweta–Salami said after the meeting in Bujumbura that the reasons most Mtabila residents gave for not wanting to return to Burundi “were not based on the international [refugee] convention”.
“That is why we are going to focus our efforts on persuading them to return in security and dignity. We do not want a situation where they are forced out but they must understand that refugee status is not indefinite and if they do not have well-founded reasons they must reflect and return home,” she said.
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Burundi’s Minister of National Solidarity, Human Rights and Gender, Clotilde Niragira, said: “A person who fled in 1993 cannot refuse to return because of security. Even if there are still problems, the country is safe.”
Despite UNHCR’s offer of assistance and cash incentives, just a few hundred Burundian refugees returned from Tanzania in 2011.
In an effort to accelerate the process, government ministers are set to visit the camp in March as part of a “mass information campaign”.
If they lose the right to stay as refugees in Tanzania, those in Mtabila will have little option but to return to Burundi. Tanzania has indicated it will not extend to them a naturalization process benefiting some 160,000 Burundians in the country as a result of the 1973 influx.
Opportunities for resettlement elsewhere are limited to any places offered by third countries via UNHCR.
For many in Mtabila, fear of insecurity and the prospect of having no land seem to be the main reasons for the reluctance to return.
“If I repatriate I will be killed because the authorities that rule the country today think that whoever did not repatriate before is on the side of those who are in opposition, those who fight the government,” one female Mtabila resident told International Refugee Rights Initiative (IRRI) during an investigation into conditions in the camp.
IRRI’s report said income-generating opportunities, education facilities, sanitation, water and freedom of movement had been significantly restricted in Mtabila.
Theo Mbazumutima of Rema Ministries, a Christian NGO working with refugees, said of those in the camp: “They are still hoping this latest wasn’t the final [decision,] because in the past the authorities have not kept to their deadlines.
“Last time they didn’t take them back by force and they’re hoping these are just threats. I don’t think so. This is genuine,” he said.