Burundi’s Once and Future Refugees

Being forced to flee your home is a life-altering experience. Packing a bag, bidding farewell to your land and livelihood, and leading your children into the unknown – all of this can indelibly divide a life history into ‘before’ and ‘after.’ Many people never get over the trauma of flight, and never give up hope that they will one day return to the land and people they love. 

Not so for Louise. Louise has been there and done that, too many times already. “This is my fourth refugee camp, and I’ve been physically forced out of each one,” Louise told me as we chatted in Nyarugusu refugee camp, on the savannah of northwestern Tanzania. “I go somewhere and I’m beaten, then I go somewhere else and I’m beaten there too. I just want it to stop.”

Louise’s sad odyssey is shared by many of the 100,000 Burundian refugees sheltering in Nyarugusu, now the world’s third-largest refugee camp. Since April 2015, Burundians have been arriving in Nyarugusu fleeing violence sparked by President Pierre Nkurunziza’s controversial bid for a third term in office. But many, like Louise, were here before, having been uprooted by the brutal 1993-2005 civil war in which roughly 300,000 Burundians lost their lives. 

This is my fourth refugee camp, and I’ve been physically forced out of each one. I go somewhere and I’m beaten, then I go somewhere else and I’m beaten there too. I just want it to stop.

For years, Louise lived in a refugee camp just a few miles from her current home in Nyarugusu. It wasn’t a great life, yet it was stable. But the pressure on refugees to return home started to build in 2005 when Burundi’s civil war concluded. It mounted through 2012, when Tanzania officially declared that Burundians living on its territory would no longer be protected as refugees. And it reached a tipping point in 2013, when roughly 50,000 Burundian refugees – and thousands more Burundian migrants – were expelled from Tanzania.

In official parlance, the 2013 movements were called an “orderly return,” but in fact it was anything but orderly. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) attempted to screen the refugees to make sure that none would face serious persecution back in Burundi, but the agency was seriously overstretched and could not handle the caseload. The pressure was so intense that “everyone was doing protection interviews of Burundian refugees at the time – including our drivers,” according to one aid worker present at the time. “It was crazy.” Refugees who refused to return voluntary were then physically forced, with Tanzanian security forces using batons and tear gas to herd refugees onto trucks.

Back home in Burundi, one of the poorest and most crowded countries in Africa, these former refugees found it difficult to restart their lives after 20 years in exile. Some had no land they could return to, and wound up in returnee settlements with sub-par services. Others tried to reclaim property that had been taken by squatters. But any progress they made was quickly swept away in early 2015, after President Nkurunziza’s campaign pushed the country back into crisis. 

It does not matter whether we go home or not. What matters is that our children can have good food, good health, and an education. We don’t want them to suffer as we did.

Some refugees, like Émilie, were targeted because they had tried to reclaim their old property. “The landowners were trying to force us out. Then when the crisis started, they sent the Imbonerakure” – a militia aligned with President Nkurunziza’s political party – “to threaten us with sticks to leave,” Émilie told me. “A local leader saw what was happening and asked the Imbonerakure, ‘What are you doing here?’ They replied, ‘You be quiet! We’re here to kill these people, so just let us be.” Émilie’s husband was then attacked and seriously injured. “The moment he was well enough to leave the hospital, we fled back to Tanzania.”

Others, like Sandrine, were targeted because they would not support Nkurunziza’s National Council for the Defense of Democracy-Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD). “My parents were farmers and refused to join the CNDD-FDD,” she told me, her eyes brimming with tears. “So when the crisis started, Imbonerakure came to our house, took our parents, and killed them. I ran here to Tanzania, hoping to find one of my relatives. But so far, I’m alone.”

No one knows how long Burundi’s current crisis will persist – or how much worse it will get before it gets better. But after 20 years fleeing from place to place, the Burundians of Nyarugusu have had enough. “I’m tired of fleeing!” Émilie told me, exasperated. “We worry that the Tanzanians will force us out with sticks again. We don’t want our children to keep running everywhere.”

The Tanzanian government must therefore keep its borders open to Burundian refugees, and not push them back toward persecution. Foreign donors should also invest in the refugees’ education and skills, making them a benefit to Tanzanian society rather than a burden. Because for refugees like Louise, “It does not matter whether we go home or not. What matters is that our children can have good food, good health, and an education. We don’t want them to suffer as we did.”