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Mass Burundian refugee influx in Tanzania

Mark Caldwell / abjNovember 23, 2015

More than a hundred thousand Burundian refugees in neighboring Tanzania face overcrowding and disease. Aid agencies say the lives of these refugees could be threatened by heavy rains and an increase of new arrivals.

Image: DW/P. Kwigize

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has warned that heavy rains, flooding and a spike in new arrivals could threaten the lives of over 110,000 Burundian refugees living in overcrowded camps in Tanzania.

An upsurge of new arrivals in the camps in April saw the figures rise to almost 180,000 Burundian and Congolese refugees in Tanzania. The violence in Burundi sparked by President Pierre Nkurunziza's bid for a third term has claimed at least 240 lives and sent more than 200,000 Burundian fleeing to neighboring countries.

Nkurunziza won the election in July leading to further instability in the country. Burundi is now engulfed in violent clashes between opposition groups and security forces in the capital, Bujumbura, and a series of targeted killings.

The high number of Burundians fleeing the conflict forced UNHCR to open a second camp, Nduta, to reduce congestion at the first camp, Nyarugusu. More than 50,000 refugees are gradually being moved to Nduta. UNHCR has plans to open a third camp in Mtendeli.

Violence and protest in Burundi
Burundi has been engulfed by violent protest since President Nkurunziza's third term bid.Image: Reuters/G. Tomasevic

UNHCR's country representative in Tanzania told DW that they are not well prepared for any potential mass influx of new refugees in the camps.

DW: Is the recent violence contributing to the number of people fleeing Burundi?

Joyce Mends-Cole: Let me say that the very difficult situation in Burundi has, of course, contributed to this outflow since the fifth week of May. And it has spiked at certain times, where we've had mass inflow. At one point, just before the parliamentary elections, we had 6,000 over a three-day period. However, right now we are getting about 176 on a daily basis. So there is overcrowding and our problem has been that had the numbers stopped, we would then have been able to decongest more measurably and significantly the Nyarugusu camp.

Will these camps be big enough?

It very much depends on water. At the moment, we have water in Nduter and the government has agreed to an expansion of the area in Nduter. They have now looked at Mutandeli and also agreed to expand the area. But the problem is the search for water because we obviously cannot put people into a camp unless there is water.

Joye Mends-Cole UNHCR Tanzania
UNHCR country representative in Tanzania, Joyce Mends-Cole, says camps cannot admit more Burundi refugees in their current stateImage: Joyce Mends-Cole

You said that water is a problem, so presumably disease is a problem as well.

As you may remember when we had the first mass influx, they came into a very small peninsular area and because of the congestion, there was an outbreak of cholera. But we and our partners worked very acidulously and we lost only - it's terrible when I saw only - 29 people. But we could have lost a thousand given the practical circumstances of Kagunga.

Does the UNHCR have the resources to cope with this crisis?

If there was a mass influx today, we would not be ready. And that is, of course, in part due to the fact that we have not been able to prepare all the camps in some areas because of lack of resources. But equally importantly, is water. With climate change and degradation of land, I believe it has had an impact on those sites, in particular Karago. And that's why we are trying to find a drill that can go deeper than previous bore holes. We would have to dig very deep and that's what we are now planning to do.

Refugee camp, Nyarugusu in Tansania
Over 100 Burundian refugees arrive at UNHRC camps in Tanzania on a daily basisImage: DW/P. Kwigize

Joyce Mends-Cole is the country representative of UNHCR in Tanzania

Interview: Mark Caldwell