Over the past five years, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has helped over 350,000 Burundian refugees return to their homes, under one of the agency's largest repatriation programmes in Africa.
The 350,000 landmark was passed on Tuesday, when convoys carrying more than 1,500 refugees crossed the border with Tanzania and arrived at three UNHCR transit centres in the provinces of Makamba, Ruyigi and Muyinga.
In addition to helping some 270,000 return home, the agency has also assisted around 80,000 who returned to Burundi on their own. It has supported the reintegration of returnees by funding housing schemes, legal assistance programmes and the reconstruction of clinics and health centres.
Some 12,300 Burundians have returned home this year, more than 8,000 since July. UNHCR plans to repatriate some 65,000 during the whole year, including 60,000 from camps in the main host country, Tanzania. There are also large numbers in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
The pace of returns this year has increased since July, when UNHCR introduced a cash grant of $45 to each returnee to help them get started once back in Burundi. Those returning on Tuesday received the first instalment of the cash grant as well as supplies such as blankets, plastic sheeting, tools and seeds.
The returnees also received food packages from the UN World Food Programme (WFP), which on Tuesday appealed to donors for at least $20 million for increased aid to help many of those returning to Burundi.
Bo Schack, UNHCR's representative in Burundi, called for greater international efforts to improve socio-economic conditions in the country. “The extreme poverty in many areas of return remains a big challenge. These are important development needs which go far beyond UNHCR's limited resources for humanitarian needs,” he said.
UNHCR began facilitating the repatriation of Burundian refugees in April 2002 and has actively promoted repatriation since June 2006 as the security situation continued to improve in the small Central African country that is recovering from decades of devastating ethnic war.