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BY ESTHER YU-HSI LEE MAR 17, 2016 8:00 AM
The portrayal of the refugee crisis that has garnered significant international attention is often of a Syrian holding onto a dinghy for dear life, heading to Europe to escape the violence and turmoil back home in the Middle East.
But the reality is that Europe isn’t alone in this issue. African countries are experiencing a similar exodus. Many people in the East African region have been on the run since April 2015.
And just like in Europe, this crisis shows no signs of relenting.
More than 220,00 refugees in the East African nation of Burundi have fled after a failed coup attempt and extra-judicial killings following incumbent President Pierre Nkurunziza’s announcement last year that he would seek an unconstitutional third term. After Nkurunziza won, his country descended into political unrest as opposition members and party defectors took to the streets to protest.
Within Burundi, more than 46,000 people are internally displaced and hundreds have been killed. And hundreds of thousands of refugees have fled to neighboring countries: Rwanda is hosting75,000 Burundians, while Tanzania has 130,000, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has 18,000, and Uganda has 21,000, according to figures from Al Jazeera America.
Burundian refugees in neighboring countries face dire conditions in camps, while young people face the additional hardship of forced recruitment by Burundian opposition groups and non-state armed militias to topple the incumbency.
A December 2015 Refugees International report found some evidence that teen refugees between 15 and 17 fled to Rwanda only to be recruited to join a non-state armed group whose aim was to overthrow President Nkurunziza. Once recruited, the teens were transported to a training camp inside Rwanda to learn how to use weapons, first aid, camouflague, and other military skills.
“The objective after that was that they would remain in the DRC for a certain amount of time until it would be possible for them to reenter Burundi and to undertake some kind of a military operation back home,” Michael Boyce, advocate at the research advocacy organization Refugees International and author of the report, told ThinkProgress. “These are not the only cases of child recruitment, but only direct testimony.”
Though six teens were apprehended in the DRC and provided information of recruitment to international officials, it’s possible that many more teen refugees were likely being trained in at least one training camp with the capacity to hold 500 soldiers. Women and girls were also present at the training site, suggesting that “the problem is larger than just six individuals who got caught up in this enterprise,” Boyce noted.
Boyce’s observation has been corroborated by some of the on-the-ground witness testimony that also found “Rwandan police officers watched as recruits who agreed to join military training boarded shuttles out of Mahama and that Rwandan military vehicles were used in some cases,” Al Jazeera previously reported. And in his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in February, the U.S. Special Envoy for the Great Lakes of Africa spoke with at least three Burundian former child soldiers in the DRC who explained that they had been recruited in Rwandan refugee camps to later fight in Burundi.
There could still be more teenagers susceptible to recruitment. There are various reasons why teens may be drawn to fight — including extreme poverty and the lack of opportunity for them to continue their education. They may decide the payment from the opposition groups is worth the risk.
But one international agency has stepped in to stem the flow of activities that allow for the abuse, exploitation, and neglect of children. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Rwanda has been identifying and managing cases of vulnerable children — kids who might be unaccompanied without their parents or guardians, kids who are taking care of their younger siblings alone, or kids who are engaged in child labor.
“There was a very high number of such children in this particular refugee influx,” Martina Pomeroy, the UNHCR spokeswoman in Rwanda, told ThinkProgress. She explained that there’s a team of protection staff on the ground “who are in the camp every day speaking to refugees and community groups” to identify these kids and monitor how they’re doing.
The group has also engaged in activities to empower parents to protect their children from exploitation or recruitment. Pomeroy said they help provide access to education for all refugee children and have trained “para-social workers” from among the refugee community, who help to raise awareness on child protection and the rights of children.
Still, the issue of teen refugee recruitment may spiral into a more troubling situation as the Burundian government has been increasingly shutting its borders as a justification to keep out those recruits. For example, two months after Nkurunziza took office last year, the government closed off exit points at the borders with Tanzania, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo to “protect the image of the country,” sources told the International Business Times at the time.
At least with Nkurunziza still in power, the refugee crisis won’t go away any time soon. But it remains to be seen if international actors will react in the same way that they have to the crisis in Europe.
“It’s a slow burn — there’s not as much of an impetus for the rest of the community to be involved,” Boyce said. “Just because it’s a slow burn doesn’t mean it can’t explode at some point in the near future. With Burundian armed groups active in neighboring countries, the risk for a regional conflagration is very real and I think the risk grows every day that we don’t achieve a political solution in Burundi that puts in the path on sustainable peace.”