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Burundian refugees face uncertain future

Cai Nebe
August 28, 2020

As hundreds of Burundian refugees living in Rwanda return home after years in exile following deadly political violence, observers see this as a chance for Burundi and Rwanda to normalize frosty relations.

Burundian refugees getting temperature checked for coronavirus
Returning refugees had to undergo a coronavirus temperature checkImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/B. Mugiraneza

Against a backdrop of thawing relations between the small central African neighbors of Burundi and Rwanda, more than 170 Burundian refugee families have been repatriated from Rwanda. Many of them spent years in exile. Marked buses have taken Burundians from the Mahama Refugee Camp across the border to two temporary sites in Burundi.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Rwanda is facilitating the proceedings and says the repatriation will continue.

Many refugees fled to Rwanda following Burundi's political crisis triggered by the 2015 election, which saw deceased former President Pierre Nkurunziza win a third term in office.

Hope for a better future

A male refugee, who spoke to DW on condition of anonymity, fled Burundi in 2016 without his wife and children. The repatriation gives him the chance to find his family. With the change of regime, he hopes the situation will continue to improve.  

Burundian refugees getting temperature checked for coronavirus
Returning refugees had to undergo a coronavirus temperature checkImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/B. Mugiraneza

"At that time, I fled my hometown, men and boys were being arrested en masse. We were hunted under the former regime." The man says his family has told him it is now safe to return. 

Now that Burundi is under the leadership of new President Evariste Ndayishimiye, following the sudden death of President Pierre Nkurunziza in June, some Burundian refugees feel safe enough to return home. Ndayishimiye tweeted in his local language: "We welcome our brothers who have returned from exile in Mahama Refugee Camp in Rwanda. It's a pleasure for their families and the nation of Burundi." 

He has instructed authorities to help the refugees integrate and called on the others who are willing to return to come home. 

Read more: Burundi: Tough presidency awaits Evariste Ndayishimiye

A Burundian farmer and father of three is enthusiastic about his return after being encouraged by his relatives. "I left Burundi in 2015 because I was afraid of the insecurity that prevailed in my village. My family in Burundi assure me the situation is good. This is why I have decided to leave exile," he told DW. 

More repatriation planned

The UNHCR in Rwanda says repatriation is an option for all Burundians in Rwanda. The UN agency has already registered nearly 1,500 Burundians, mostly refugees from the Mahama Refugee Camp in Rwanda, near the Tanzanian border. 

So far, only one convoy has left Rwanda for Burundi. Elise Villechalance, spokesperson for the UNHCR in Rwanda, said the program would be evaluated after the first trip. "I imagine there will be another technical meeting that will be held to see how it went, what went well, where we need to make improvements. More repatriation efforts will follow this first one," said Villechalance.

Soldier standing in front of burning barricade
Burundi's 2015 crisis claimed at least 1,700 lives and forced nearly 400,000 to fleeImage: picture-alliance/dpa/D. Kurokawa

The first convoy included 558 refugees from 178 different families. Only refugees who tested negative for COVID-19 were repatriated.

Not all refugees want to return to Burundi, neither do all of them feel safe in their home country. It's widely thought that the majority of refugees sheltering in Rwanda will stay there. While most repatriation efforts for Burundians have come from Tanzania, this repatriation from Rwanda marks a positive shift in relations between the two countries. 

Time to mend ties?

Diplomatic ties between Rwanda and Burundi were severely damaged when Rwandan President Paul Kagame criticized his then-Burundian counterpart, Nkurunziza, for seeking a third term in office. 

The repatriation was kickstarted by a group of Burundian refugees in Rwanda, after they expressed a desire to return home in a petition to President Ndayishimiye. According to that petition, the refugees said their reasons for fleeing the country and remaining in exile were no longer necessary since Nkurunziza was dead.

Paul Kagame
Rwandan President Paul Kagame did not get along with former Burundian President Pierre NkurunzizaImage: Getty Images/AFP/M. Bhuiyan

In response, President Ndayishimiye accused Rwanda of holding the Burundian nationals "hostage" for political and strategic reasons, and that his government would not deal with a "hypocritical state". Rwanda strongly rejected these claims.

The two countries share a volatile history, with refugees consistently crossing the border to escape political and ethnic persecution.  DW's Alex Ngarambe, who was at the scene when the refugees were being transported, described the action as a turning point for relations between Rwanda and Burundi.

"They are trying all their best to see how they can normalize relations, especially after five years of mistrust between the two governments. It is in the best interest of Rwanda to see that they work well with the neighbors," Ngarambe said.