For the first time since fleeing their country five years ago, Burundian refugees living in Rwanda are returning home. But while the government sees this as a significant step in uniting a nation torn apart by political violence, activists and aid workers are treating it with caution. Tens of thousands of Burundians remain fearful of returning to a country where human rights abuses are still rampant.
The East African nation has been reeling since it was thrown into turmoil when late President Pierre Nkurunziza decided to seek a controversial third term in 2015. When thousands of Burundians took to the streets in protest, the government responded with a brutal crackdown that killed at least 1,200 people and forced some 400,000 to flee to neighboring countries. The vast majority of them wound up in Tanzania, but more than 70,000 sought refuge in Rwanda.
After Evariste Ndayishimiye, Nkurunziza’s preferred candidate,
won the most recent presidential election in May
, despite accusations of fraud, many Burundians refugees thought they would try to return. Since August, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has repatriated more than 3,000 Burundians from Rwanda, according to Abdul Karim Ghoul, the UNHCR’s representative in Burundi. Thousands more could return by the end of the year, with up to 40,000 more to follow in 2021.
All told, since 2017, more than 104,000 Burundian refugees have returned home from Tanzania, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, according to the U.N. But they are returning to challenging conditions, and the security situation in the country remains fragile. That is why the U.N. is not actively encouraging returns, assisting only those who step forward voluntarily.
Burundi’s government under Nkurunziza had a dismal human rights record, accused by advocacy groups and civilians of arbitrarily detaining, killing and torturing people suspected of supporting the opposition. During a visit to Burundi last year
, two men who claimed to be members of the Imbonerakure, the ruling party’s youth militia, told me the government had ordered them to threaten and even kill people associated with the opposition in order to instill a climate of fear.
Ndayishimiye’s administration has shown some signs of greater emphasis on accountability, such as in August, when a court in southern Burundi reportedly sentenced
13 men, including three police officers and members of the ruling party, to prison for extorting farm workers who had returned from Tanzania. But human rights activists see such instances of accountability as isolated.
“I don’t think it’s representative of what we we’re seeing regarding human rights with the new government,” said Rachel Nicholson, Amnesty International’s Burundi researcher. “We’re continuing to see really disturbing trends of human rights violations.”
According to a recent report by Anschaire Nikoyagize, president of the Burundian human rights group Ligue Iteka, almost 200 people were killed, more than 40 were tortured and some 400 arbitrarily arrested in the three months immediately after Ndayishimiye was sworn in as president. The report alleged that these atrocities were mainly perpetrated by security forces and the Imbonerakure. “Killings, kidnappings, sexual and gender-based violence, torture, and arbitrary arrests have continued at a very worrying pace,” Nikoyagize wrote. “The government’s silence on all of these events is disturbing.”
Burundian refugees also accuse the government, under both Nkurunziza and Ndayishimiye, of foul play in trying to get them to return to the country. Two residents of the Mahama refugee camp, in Rwanda, told World Politics Review that the Imbonerakure, at the behest of the Burundi government, is offering people money to go home. WPR is not using their names to protect their identities.
Due to the challenging conditions and fragile security situation in Burundi, the U.N. is not encouraging refugees to return, assisting only those who step forward voluntarily.
In December, one woman was offered $2 if she agreed to add her name to a list of those willing to return to Burundi. When she refused, they more than doubled the offer, she said. In June, another refugee in the camp accepted $10 to convince people to go back, he said.
“I accepted their money because my wife and children needed to buy food,” he said. He ultimately did not return to Burundi for fear of his safety, but said the incentives, including money and other items, such as soap, continue for others in the camp. Exiled Burundians speculate that by coaxing refugees to return, authorities are trying to project a sense of stability and normalcy.
Burundi’s government did not respond to requests for comment about allegations that it was giving incentives to refugees to return or what measures it was taking to help people reintegrate once they did. But refugees who have gone back say they have received little government support. Even the food rations and money provided by UNHCR, meant to last three months, were depleted after six weeks, Emmanuel Bizimana, one of the first refugees to return from Rwanda in August, told WPR by phone from his village near the northern town of Kirundo.
A father of six, Bizimana fled to Rwanda in 2015 after being jailed twice by the ruling party for his affiliation with the opposition. While he feels safe being back in Burundi, he doesn’t know how he’s going to survive. His house is damaged and might collapse, and he doesn’t have money to fix it. For he and his wife to resume work as teachers, he had to borrow $200 from friends and family to register with the government, he said. But he hasn’t yet heard that he can start working again.
“I’m worried,” said Bizimana. “I’m wondering when I’ll be reintegrated and be able to go back to work.”
UNHCR gives refugees a three-month support package, including approximately $150 for each adult, $75 for each child, a blanket, a mat and food, as well as phone cards so people can be monitored.* But a “significant percentage of the returnees could not be found” in the areas where they were supposed to be, said Ghoul. This could be due to several reasons, such as refugees staying with relatives or relocating to other towns or provinces, he added.
Yet some humanitarians see the U.N.’s inability to keep track of people in a country amid ongoing political violence and food insecurity—not to mention natural disasters, like floods—as extremely concerning. “It’s obviously a very worrying trend, not least because it also speaks to a weakness in the monitoring of returnees, but it means we genuinely don’t know what has happened to people,” said an international aid worker who asked not to be named in order to speak freely.
As refugee returns from Rwanda have only just begun, organizations in Burundi are preparing for potential problems such as a lack of land and housing in the densely populated, land-stressed country, as well as the risk of stigmatization against those who have come back. Returning refugees “are considered less patriotic than other citizens because of having fled the country,” said David Kigozi, director for the International Refugee Rights Initiative. “They are generally identified with opposition groups, which puts them on a kind of automatic collision course with [the] ruling party,” he said.
But after half a decade of living in a country that’s not their own, Burundian refugees say they have few options. “If you can’t feed your child, it’s very easy to decide to go back and say ‘I’d rather die in Burundi than here,’” said Marie Louise Baricako, a refugee living in Rwanda and the chair of a local advocacy group called the Inamahoro Movement, Women and Girls for Peace and Security.
The biggest problem, according to Baricako, is that “the crisis is still there” in Burundi. “It still needs [a] solution. Some of us are waiting for that solution to happen, and then we can go back home.”
*Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to reflect an increase in aid packages to refugees that went into effect Oct. 1. WPR regrets the error.
Sam Mednick is a freelance journalist and Burkina Faso correspondent for the Associated Press. She has worked in print and radio for more than a decade, reporting from around the world, focusing on Africa and the Middle East. She has written for VICE, The New Humanitarian, Foreign Policy, The Guardian and Devex, among other outlets.