Another batch of over 500 Burundian refugees in Rwanda is expected to head home this Thursday in the third round of repatriation, following the first two groups which left Mahama Refugee Camp for Burundi beginning in August.
The new group of more than 500 will bring the total to over 1,500 of since the repatriation exercise began last months, after Rwanda and Burundi officials, with the help of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), agreed on the modalities for the refugees who have been in Rwanda since 2015, to return home. So, 992 have returned home.
The Ministry of Emergency Management, which is in charge of refugee management and the UNHCR Office in Rwanda confirmed the development, indicating that the convoy of the latest group will exit via Nemba One Stop Border Post.
“On Thursday 24 September 2020, the Government of Rwanda in collaboration with the Government of Burundi and UNHCR will facilitate the organized voluntary repatriation for the third group of Burundian refugees from the Mahama Refugee Camp, through the Nemba One Stop Border Post,” MINEMA said.
On Wednesday, Elise Villechalane, the Spokesperson of UNHCR in Rwanda, told KT Press that over 500 people had registered to be part of the third group.
“So far 577 people are completing pre departure formalities. The final figure will be known tomorrow (today). Over 7000 have signed up for return so far,” Villechalane said.
“We think being able to support the return of 8, 000 by the end of the year,” she added, even though the number will still be small, compared to the number of Burundian refugees still in Rwanda, with Mahama Camp alone hosting about 60, 000.
Some reports indicate that most of the refugees have been reluctant to register to return home, though they are now slowly warming up to the idea of returning to Burundi, even though some, especially urban refugees say they don’t feel safe enough to return home yet.
Villechalane said that five years on, it’s natural for anyone to wish to go back home when conditions allow, even though they have been generously welcomed and protected in Rwanda.
The cautious approach by the refugees to show interest to return home when the opportunity opened up contradicts Burundian President Maj. Gen. Evariste Ndayishimiye’s claims that Burundian refugees were being held hostage in ‘a neighbouring country’.
The repatriation of the refugees also came with its own challenges, mainly resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, which requires pre-testing of all returning refugees. UNHCR also says it is facing major challenges in regard to the budgetary resources needed to support the process.
According to Villechalane, UNHCR is mobilising donors to support the exercise which requires over $1.4m repatriate refugees by the end of the year.
“We organized a donor briefing last week to call for support and a regional appeal will soon be launched. We estimate needing around 1.482 million USD to repatriate 8000 persons by the end of 2020. We hope support will come,” she said.
According to updated UNHCR figures, as of August, there were 329,294 Burundian refugees, with Rwanda hosting 72, 007, of whom over 60, 000 are in Mahama Camp located in Kirehe district, Eastern Province. Majority fled the country in 2015 as the country descended into a political conflict triggered by late President Nkurunziza’s decision to seek a third term.
Sections of Burundian refugees in Rwanda, mainly those who openly opposed the re-election of Nkurunziza, remain reluctant to return home, fearing revenge attacks, with many accusing President Ndayishimiye of not making assurances on safety.
Almost six years on, Tanzania still hosts the largest number of Burundian refugees with 160,312, accounting for 48.7 percent while Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) hosts 48, 571 and Uganda 48,404.
In addition to the population above, there are some 13,800 Burundian refugees and asylum seekers in Kenya, 7,800 in Mozambique, 8,300 in Malawi, 9,200 in South Africa and 6,000 in Zambia who are assisted within the respective country-level programmes.
A further 42,200 Burundian refugees, who have lived for decades in Tanzania, no longer receive assistance and are not included in these figures, according to UNHCR.