By Millicent Zighe
Nearly half of the 309,342 Burundian refugees in Tanzania, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Uganda are expected to return home by the end of the year, according to a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees report.
Poor living conditions and abuse in camps are some of the factors forcing refugees to return to their home country, while the Covid-19 pandemic has posed additional challenges.
Tanzania is currently providing shelter to 147,748 refugees. Rwanda and Uganda are hosting 65,037 and 49,728 refugees respectively, and 46,829 live in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). According to the Burundi Regional Refugee Response Plan, it is projected that 143,000 refugees will return home by the end of December 2021.
The Covid-19 pandemic prompted all the four countries to close their borders, therefore limiting access to potential asylum seekers and refugees from Burundi.
Although the host nations strive to provide health services to all refugees and asylum seekers, the efforts have been hampered by shortage of medicine, and insufficient health care facilities and medical personnel. These challenges have the potential to make a full-scale Covid-19 outbreak in the refugee camps catastrophic.
In addition, poor sanitation has placed refugees at high risk of contracting the disease. Toilets are shared among hundreds of refugees, making contact tracing difficult.
Although the host nations have put in place various measures to try to contain the spread of the coronavirus, the refugees remain at increased risk of contracting the disease because they typically live in overcrowded conditions where social distancing is nearly impossible.
The pandemic has also contributed to reduced funding for refugee camps, leading to food rationing. The 2021 budget for Burundian refugees in the four countries is $222.6 million. The response to the 2020 appeal for assistance was among the most underfunded globally, with donors contributing only 40 per cent of the budget of $293 million.
Limited humanitarian assistance has forced many women and girls into prostitution and early marriage to survive, putting them at a greater risk of sexual, physical, and psychological violence. In addition, overcrowded shelters, traditional gender attitudes, and family separation have led to increased cases of sexual and gender-based violence.
Children, who make up over half of the refugee population in the camps, suffer the most. As indicated in the UNHCR report, many spend their entire childhoods away from home, sometimes separated from their families. They witness or experience acts of violence and are at risk of abuse, neglect, violence, exploitation, and trafficking or military recruitment.
“Child protection services remain a key priority, including improving the ratio of the caseworker to children. Protection of adolescents and youth also needs to be strengthened through targeted interventions. The main risks for children and youth include psychological distress, family separation, forced recruitment, child labour, physical violence, access to education, and gender-based violence, ” read the report.
In Tanzania, authorities have been accused of pressuring refugees into leaving by enforcing strict policies. For instance, refugees are not allowed to leave the camps without permission. Market days have been reduced from three to once a week, thus constraining the livelihood of the refugees. Human rights monitors have documented several cases of abuse, including the disappearance of 18 refugees and asylum seekers in the Mtendeli and Nduta camps in Kigoma region, near the border with Burundi.
In Uganda, Rwanda, and DRC, the policies are favourable to many refugees. They are allowed to work and own business. Nonetheless, the report noted that more support is needed to improve livelihood access for host communities to strengthen their resilience.
An estimated 400,000 Burundians fled to neighbouring Uganda, Tanzania, DRC, and Rwanda after the late President Pierre Nkurunziza was controversially elected for a third term in 2015.
The refugee response plan for Burundi seeks to ensure that exiles have access to territory, humanitarian assistance, opportunities for durable solutions, and self-reliance. It aims to preserve equal and unhindered access to territorial asylum and protection, promote the full enjoyment of rights, and maintain the civilian character of asylum. It also hopes to enable access to essential services according to minimum international standards, ensure protection systems are strengthened, and make it possible for refugees and returnees to enjoy their full rights, specifically in regard to safety and security, child protection, protection from SGBV, and community-based protection.