UNHCR foresees worsening Burundian refugee crisis in TZ

Burundian refugees at Kigoma waiting to be transported to camps.

Burundian refugees at L. Tanganyika shore waiting to be transported to camps.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) announced Wednesday the number of Burundian refugees in Tanzania is likely to increase from the current 70,000 to between 250,000 and 500,000 in the near future.

The UN refugee agency says the continued volatile situation in the Central African nation and the forthcoming presidential election are factors that are likely to drive more out of their country.

Since the beginning of June approximately 250 new arrivals were recorded daily in Kigoma, the refugee center in Western Tanzania.

But over the last week this number has risen substantially. In the last three days of June alone, over 6,500 new refugees entered Tanzania according to official figures.

The situation at the border between Tanzania and Burundi is already tense and it is expected to escalate the presidential election approaches. The refugee crisis that started in early May has continued to worsen, with a steady stream of new refugees entering Tanzania.

Last weekend almost ten thousand Burundians fled the election related violence to Tanzania, Rwanda and other countries in the region.

New arrivals are reporting increasing violence in rural Burundi. International Rescue Committee (IRC)’s Country Director, Elijah Okeyo, said in a press statement Friday “Eighty percent of Burundian refugees interviewed by the IRC said they witnessed a civilian being killed before fleeing to Tanzania. Many are arriving at Nyaragusu camp with little or no luggage as they had to flee immediately or escape in the middle of the night.”

With the refugee camp in Nyarugusu desperately overcrowded as the new influx of 70,000 Burundians have been combined with 60,000 Congolese refugees already living there, refugees have had to use school buildings and churches as shelters and many more housed in mass shelters.

A total of 10,867 refugees are living in schools, which resulted in disruptions in area children’s schooling.

This is set to continue, depriving children of any sense of normality on the back of their recent stressful journey and uncertainties of the current situation.

Plan International, Save the Children and IRC recognise that this humanitarian crisis has the potential to spiral out of control, with the risk of destabilising the whole region.

These humanitarian agencies are working in a coordinated response to this crisis focusing primarily on child protection and education needs.

‘If UNHCR’s latest predictions are correct, we are looking at a serious humanitarian crisis and it is imperative that we prepare to meet the needs of children and other highly vulnerable groups as soon as they arrive into Tanzania,” Plan International Tanzania, Acting Country Director, Elena Ahmed said

Everyday unaccompanied children are arriving in the camp traumatised from what they have seen and experienced in Burundi.

They are fleeing violence and instability in their home country but are arriving in overcrowded refugee camps, where services are already stretched to breaking point.

Child friendly spaces by the three agencies provide a degree of safety, protection and psycho-social support but these need scaling up to provide the services that the increasing number of vulnerable children need and deserve.

A new camp site is soon to be announced to accommodate 40,000 of the existing 70,000 refugees. “We hope that the shift will be phased so that basic services are up and running before refugee families are taken to the new site,” Save the Children Country Director, Steve Thorne said adding “As agencies ready to support, we call for early information on plans for the new camp so that we can best coordinate our efforts to support the refugee move to the new area.”

The humanitarian agencies are urging UNHCR and the Tanzanian government “to identify additional sites early, in order to better prepare for increased flows of men, women and children who will be in urgent need of help when they cross the border.”

UNHCR recently announced about 144,000 Burundians have fled their country to regional countries. The bulk of these refugees is in Tanzania and Rwanda.