Burundi: Three lessons about the crisis from speaking to those who fled it

Burundi will soon mark two years since it was propelled into a political crisis by President Pierre Nkurunziza’s determination to be elected to a third term in power. As it stands, more than 327,000 of Burundi’s 11 million people have now sought refuge outside the country according to UN figures from early 2017 – nearly all fleeing since the crisis erupted.

This calamity reverses a decade of refugee returns after the 1993-2005 civil war, and a new surge of people fleeing in late-2016 risks overwhelming the woefully underfunded humanitarian response.

Most live in camps in neighbouring Tanzania, which has hosted Burundian refugees since the 1970s. Others are in Uganda, Rwanda or the Democratic Republic of Congo, while a smaller number live in urban centres, especially Kigali, where many are not registered as refugees.

Despite many people fleeing, the Burundian government has been trying to project a sense of control, arguing that the crisis has passed. It claims that most refugees are either insurgents or have fallen victim to the economic problems brought about, in their eyes, by international sanctions.

At the UN General Assembly in September 2016, Burundi’s foreign minister controversially claimed that many of its refugees are returning voluntarily and that the country was now stable enough for a policy of returns to be pursued. However, the assassination of a government minister on 1 January, a failed attack on a government spokesman in November, and numerous less high-profile acts of violence and terror, show that Burundi remains deeply troubled.

At the same time, East African Community mediation led by former Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa reached an impasse in December when he stated that the legitimacy of President Nkurunziza should not be questioned. The exiled opposition read this as blatant support for what they see as a dictatorial regime. The breakdown in mediation will further dent refugees’ hopes of an early resolution to the crisis and increase their frustrations.

During the course of 2016, Crisis Group interviewed over 50 Burundian refugees from all walks of life, and from both Tutsi and Hutu ethnic communities, in Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya and, for a few with some money and connections, Belgium. We asked three questions: How and why did you leave the country? What problems do you face in exile? And how do you envisage your future and that of your country?

From the responses, and drawing on long, field research-based knowledge of Burundi, three broad conclusions emerged.

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By Richard Moncrieff