News

Hundreds of Burundi refugees to be repatriated, but fears for their safety persist

Nearly 600 refugees left Tanzania to return to their homes in neighbouring Burundi on Thursday, the United Nations said — the first batch in a mass repatriation that some migrants fear could force them back against their will.

Hundreds of thousands fled 4 years ago to Tanzania, Congo, Uganda, Rwanda and Kenya

Refugees fleeing Burundi's violence and political tension wait to board a UN ship in a May 2015 photo, at Kagunga on Lake Tanganyika, Tanzania. The UN refugee agency in August urged the governments of Tanzania and Burundi not to forcibly repatriate Burundian refugees sheltering in Tanzania. (Jerome Delay/The Associated Press)

Nearly 600 refugees left Tanzania to return to their homes in neighbouring Burundi on Thursday, the United Nations said — the first batch in a mass repatriation that some migrants fear could force them back against their will.

Hundreds of thousands of Burundians fled a surge of political violence in 2015 when President Pierre Nkurunziza ran for a third disputed term in office and opponents accused him of breaching the constitution.

A UN Commission on Burundi reported last month that there was risk of a fresh wave of atrocities as the landlocked state approached a 2020 election with its political crisis unresolved. Militias loyal to Nkurunziza's Hutu-dominated party have been accused of carrying out extrajudicial killings and disappearances, with the minority Tutsis often targeted.

But Burundi and Tanzania agreed in August to start repatriating 200,000 refugees, saying conditions in Burundi had improved.

A Tanzanian government official and the United Nations said all of Thursday's returns had been voluntary.

"All refugees who had registered to return home voluntarily from all camps gathered at Nduta camp and departed from there," said Athuman Igwe, responsible for coordinating refugees affairs in Kigoma, western Tanzania.

Burundi, with an estimated population of over 11 million, has seen hundreds of thousands flee in recent years to nearby countries in Central-East Africa. (CBC News)

The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, said 590 Burundian refugees had returned on flights that it had organized with the UN's International Organization of Migration (IOM).

It said it had not promoted the repatriation program, but was ready to help anyone who wanted to go back.

"We urge the governments of Tanzania and Burundi to respect their commitments to uphold international obligations and ensure that any refugee returns remain voluntary and that no refugee or asylum seeker is returned to Burundi against their will," it added in a statement.

Some refugees have expressed fears they might be forcibly returned to Burundi after Tanzania's Home Affairs Minister Kangi Lugola said in a video posted to Twitter in August that Tanzania would send home "all Burundians" because "Burundi is peaceful."

Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, also expressed concerns about the process in a social media post, characterizing it as "mass forced deportation."

While Tanzania has hosted the most refugees, a 2016 UN Refugee Agency report indicated that thousands had also ended up in nearby eastern African countries Uganda, Kenya and Rwanda, while others went west to Congo, also known as Congo-Kinshasa.

With files from CBC News

now