With the Burundi refugee situation approaching its seventh year, 312,615 Burundian refugees continue to be hosted by four main asylum countries, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda.
The relative stabilization of the country following the 2015 crisis and the mostly peaceful political transition in May 2020 offer new perspectives for solutions to this protracted refugee crisis. While not promoting returns in the current context, UNHCR supports Burundian refugees to exercise their right to return as long as their decision to return is voluntary, based on a free and informed choice, and that the returns take place in safety and dignity.
Since July 2020, an increasing number of Burundian refugees expressed their intention to return home, and 39,411 Burundian refugees were assisted in their voluntary repatriation over the course of the year. Preparations are underway to further scale up voluntary return operations, based on planning figures for some 143,000 Burundian refugees to return to their country of origin in 2021.
It is, however, evident that the majority of Burundian refugees will still continue to be in need of international protection throughout 2021. The Burundi Regional Refugee Response Plan was among the most critically underfunded refugee situations globally in 2020, receiving only 40 per cent of the resources required. This led to acute gaps, including food ration cuts, inadequate shelters, lack of medicines, deficient WASH infrastructure and insufficient livelihoods activities. The COVID-19 pandemic further compounded the situation. Increased support for this Regional Refugee Response Plan is crucial to ensure meaningful protection and essential humanitarian assistance for the Burundian refugee population. It is important to avoid that undue pressures, reduced livelihoods and increased hardship become push factors for refugees to prematurely return to Burundi. It is therefore vital that refugees who are not seeking to repatriate at this time receive support to meet their basic needs and that their right to asylum is fully respected. A stronger investment in education and vocational skills, as well as diversified livelihoods support will contribute to the resilience of refugees in this transition phase and will facilitate their reintegration in Burundi, when they are able to safely return home.
The 2021 Burundi Regional Refugee Response Plan takes a comprehensive and solutions-oriented approach with emphasis on the inclusion of refugees in national systems and integrated service delivery with host communities to the extent possible.
The goals of socio-economic inclusion and livelihood activities are to strengthen self-reliance of refugees and empower them to contribute to their host communities. This document is complemented by the 2021 Joint Refugee Return and Reintegration Plan developed by partners in Burundi to provide adequate reception facilities, strengthen the absorption capacity in return areas and promote the sustainability of voluntary returns.
In order to present the entire refugee response in the context of the current dynamics, the 2021 Burundi Regional Refugee Response Plan includes a regional overview, summaries of the refugee response plans in asylum countries, as well as a chapter on the envisaged voluntary repatriation of Burundian refugees.
We appreciate the strong dedication of all partners to enhance the protection of Burundian refugees and work towards durable solutions for this long-standing refugee situation. We are grateful to the host countries and communities for their support.
Last but not least, we recognize the crucial role of the donor community to sustain our collective efforts and call on all actors across the humanitarian-development nexus to contribute toward progressively resolving this refugee situation. We are looking forward to working together through a whole of society approach and based on the principle of responsibility-sharing in a spirit of solidarity, as envisaged by the Global Compact on Refugees to achieve comprehensive solutions for Burundian refugees throughout the region.
Clementine Nkweta Salami
UNHCR Regional Director, Regional Bureau