The United Nations refugee has launched a landmark two-year programme to bring an end to one of the world’s oldest protracted refugee situations: the exile of some 218,000 people from neighbouring Burundi who fled their country in 1972 to Tanzania.
UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) António Guterres kicked off the initiative over the weekend in Ulyankulu and Katumba settlements – two of the three camps in western Tanzania where the refugees have been living – and underscored that the operation’s success depends on strong donor support.
“It is the moment for the international community to show solidarity with the government and people of Tanzania to solve the long-standing problem of Burundian refugees from 1972,” he said on Sunday in Katumba, where he saw a first group of 255 refugees – who headed by train to the port of Kigoma and then travelled by road to Burundi – off.
“It is the moment to make a choice for the future. Those who want to go back to Burundi to take part in the reconstruction will be able to do so with our support. Those who feel that they are now part of Tanzania and would like to remain here, will have the possibility to ask for citizenship,” Mr. Guterres told a cheering crowd of 15,000 refugees.
Sophia Habonimana, 49, arrived in Tanzania as a 13-year-old orphan. Although she noted at the Katumba ceremony that she has no relatives in Burundi, the widow and mother of eight said she is returning to Makumba province because “I know the authorities there will help me when I arrive.”
Others, such as Gabriel Baramizigiyi, a father of 12, do not want to go back to Burundi. “I like Tanzania. I will ask to remain here because I can farm,” he said, adding that he plans to apply for citizenship.
The so-called “1972 Burundians” are among the hundreds of thousands of Burundians who sought refuge in neighbouring countries that year to escape ethnic violence which killed an estimated 200,000 people. They are distinct from the 108,000 Burundian refugees who arrived subsequently.
After more than three decades, a breakthrough came last year when Tanzania announced its intention to close the three so-called ‘Old Settlements’ which have been hosting Burundians who arrived in 1972, and the Governments of both countries have been working with UNHCR to find a solution.
The agency has called the new repatriation programme one of its most important African operations this year, it will help over 46,000 Burundians return to their home country and assist another 172,000 – including some 76,000 people over the age of 18 who are eligible to register and apply for Tanzanian citizenship – with integrating locally.
On Monday, the High Commissioner met with Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete, who voiced his Government’s commitment to finding lasting solutions for the Burundians through voluntary repatriation and integration.
The new programme is heavily dependent on contributions, and so far, $9 million of the $34 million UNHCR has appealed for has been received.
In addition to the 218,000 “1972 Burundians,” Tanzania also hosts over 100,000 Burundians and 96,000 Congolese refugees.