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Burundi: an unreported refugee crisis

21 October 2016

Over the last year and a half, an estimated 300,000 Burundians have fled their homeland to seek refuge in neighbouring countries.

This unfolding refugee crisis, and the escalating political situation behind it in Burundi, has received little attention in the media. 

mahama refugee camp in rwanda

Mahama camp in Rwanda where 50,000 Burundians are currently seeking refuge and humanitarian support. Photo by Caritas Rwanda

Violent clashes between protestors and police began in Burundi in April 2015 when incumbent President Pierre Nkurunziza announced his intension to run for a third term – a move considered unconstitutional by his opponents.
 
Nkurunziza stood for the presidency again and was re-elected in July 2015, despite opposition parties boycotting the election and the African Union and United States asking him to stand aside. 
 
At time of writing, more than 450 people have been killed in Burundi as a result of the political unrest. 
 
A report of the United Nations Independent Investigation in Burundi (UNIIB) published last month, describes “abundant evidence of gross human rights violations,” possibly amounting to crimes against humanity, by the Government of Burundi and people associated with it.
 
In response, Burundi’s government barred UN investigators from the country, and this week it made history by becoming the first government to vote to withdraw from the International Criminal Court (ICC)
 
In their report, the UN investigators also warned of the danger of genocide from the escalating violence.
 
It is only ten years since the end of the Burundian Civil War (1993 to 2006) between the Hutu and Tutsi populations, in which an estimated 300,000 people were killed.
 
The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) is warning that neighbouring countries Tanzania, Rwanda, the DRC, Uganda and Zambia are struggling to host the 300,000 Burundians who have fled the violence. 
 
UNHCR spokesman William Spindler stated that "the reception capacities of these host countries are severely overstretched and conditions remain dire for many refugees, most of whom are women and children."

Trócaire's support  for Burundian refugees in Rwanda

Pregnant and nursing Burundian Women receive nutritional support in Mahama camp.
Pregnant and nursing Burundian women receive nutritional support in Mahama camp. Photo by Caritas Rwanda.

UNHCR reports more than 81,000 Burundian refugees now live in Rwanda, with children making up half of the refugees there, many of whom are unaccompanied.

About 50,000 of these people are living in the Mahama refugee camp which lies on the Tanzanian border and was set up to provide emergency shelter, WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene), health facilities and other assistance. 

New refugees continue to arrive into Mahama camp every day and the deteriorating situation in Burundi means that its refugees do not want to return home. 

With support from Irish Aid, Trócaire is funding a project at Mahama camp to support pregnant and nursing mothers, people with disabilities, and single mothers to meet their essential needs. This includes providing technical support to our partners Caritas Rwanda to ensure the response is carried out in a safe and dignified manner. 

UNHCR is urging the international community to step up efforts to resolve the political unrest in Burundi, and to increase aid contributions to those affected.

As the numbers seeking refuge increase, so must our aid efforts.