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Burundian refugees head home but face reintegration challenges

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Over 60,000 refugees have returned this year from across the region as tensions ease in Burundi, although more aid is urgently needed to help them pick up their lives and start over.

By Yonna Tukundane in Uganda and Bernard Ntwari in Burundi | 27 October 2021

Safia Nduwimana fled violence in Burundi two years ago. It has been three weeks since she returned home, and she has mixed feelings of joy and anxiety.

“I came back home for my children’s sake. They had been homesick and out of school due to Covid-19,” says the 39-year-old widow, who must now find the means to support her nine children.

Since the start of the year, about 2,300 Burundians in Uganda have approached UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, to request assistance to return home amid improving security.

Safia was among a first group of 265 Burundians who voluntarily returned home at the start of October. So far this year, over 1,250 Burundian refugees in Uganda have returned home.

The repatriation is supported by UNHCR in Uganda, Tanzania (through which refugees from Uganda transit) and Burundi, together with the governments of the three countries, and several humanitarian agencies.

“I came back home for my children’s sake.”

Safia was pregnant at the time she fled political violence in her country. She reached Uganda’s Nakivale refugee settlement, where she received medical attention and safely delivered her child.

In 2020, Uganda was among the top five countries in the world hosting the largest number of refugees. As of this September, UNHCR estimated over 1.5 million refugees and asylum seekers were in the country, with three per cent from Burundi.

“While we are not promoting return to Burundi, we are glad to assist refugees to go back home,” said Joel Boutroue, UNHCR’s Representative in Uganda. “Our role is to ensure that returns are voluntary, free and informed and that the process is safe and dignified,” he added.

Boutroue said those refugees who opt to stay in Uganda continue to have international protection and benefit from assistance and services provided by the government, UNHCR and partners.

Most returnees face the unknown back home. Many sold their properties before fleeing, while others return to find them occupied or uninhabitable. By last August, UNHCR estimated that 37 per cent of returnees could not access their previous houses when they first returned.

On reaching Burundi, a former neighbour welcomed Safia and her family. A previous returnee, he helped her to find a house to rent, as she had sold the family home and farm to cover medical expenses before she left.

Her immediate plans are to get her children back in school and find work to provide enough food for them as recent food rations cuts for refugees in Uganda had been difficult for the family. However, she remains optimistic that the assistance she has received as part of a modest return package will help her to start over.

“With the support I received, I will buy a small piece of land and use whatever is left to start a small business,” she smiles.

In line with Burundi’s national refugee reintegration plan, UNHCR and UNDP have offered to support the Government of Burundi to build three integrated rural villages in provinces receiving many returnees. These villages will help returnees, internally displaced people (IDPs) and other vulnerable people to better reintegrate.

“We are doing our best to help returnees...but this requires huge support.”

“People can access basic services including health and education and more opportunities to become self-reliant,” said Abdul Karim Ghoul, UNHCR Representative in Burundi. “It also promotes peaceful coexistence among the communities.”

He stressed that more support is needed from donors and development agencies, referring to the Burundi 2021 Joint Refugee Return and Reintegration Plan (JRRRP), which was launched last February, and is currently funded at just 10 per cent.

“We are doing our best to help returnees better integrate in their community, but this requires huge contributions and support,” added Ghoul.

Since the beginning of the voluntary repatriation exercise in 2017, over 180,000 Burundians have returned home from Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Nearly 270,000 Burundian refugees remain in exile, generously hosted by Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, DRC, Kenya, Mozambique, Malawi, South Africa and Zambia.