UNHCR struggles to provide basics to Burundi refugees

By Halima Athumani

KAMPALA, Uganda (AA) – As the Burundi crisis marks one year this week, the UNHCR is struggling to provide basics to refugees fleeing the country.

In a statement released Wednesday, the UNHCR said, “We are struggling to provide even the basics such as shelter, household items, and latrines.”

Charles Yaxley, the UNHCR communications officer, told Anadolu Agency, “The provision of services such as specialized counseling, care for the disabled and elderly, protection of the environment, and even primary healthcare may also fall by the wayside.”

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees puts the number of refugees that have fled Burundi since the crisis began in April 2015 at almost 260,000 people. “Thousands more could join them over the rest of the year unless a political solution is found and a descent into civil war is averted.”

The UN refugee agency is seeking US$175.1 million for its Burundi crisis operations this year. “But we have only received US$47.8 million to date and it’s absolutely not sufficient to deliver the much-needed humanitarian assistance.”

Many asylum-seekers or new arrivals report human rights abuses in Burundi. “These include torture, sexual violence, arbitrary detention, intimidation, forced recruitment by militia, killings, and extortion.”

Tanzania, which hosts the largest number of 135,941 Burundian refugees, has been admitting 130 people a day, and the bulk are living in the overcrowded Nyarugusu camp. It is now considered one of the largest refugee camps in the world, with 140,540 refugees.

The rest live in the Nduta and Mtendeli camps, which were reopened to ease congestion in Nyarugusu. Charles states, “But Nduta has reached its 55,000 capacity and from next week new arrivals will be taken to Mtendeli.”

The situation is no better in Rwanda, which registers 130 per week and now totals 76,404. Most of the refugees are being kept at Mahama camp in the eastern province, with an urgent need to construct shelters in the camp, which is home to nearly 48,500 refugees, nearly half of them children.

The Burundian refugees coming to Uganda have averaged 150-250 in recent weeks, with a total of 24,583. Last week saw 167 Burundian refugees arrive at the Nakivale settlement in the southwest of the country.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, the UNHCR also notes that the number of refugees is steadily rising and now stands at 22,204. About 900 refugees were registered in each of the first three months of the year. Charles says, “Most are staying at the Lusenda camp, which now hosts more than 16,000 refugees and has a capacity for 18,000.”

Even though these countries have continued to accept people despite space restrictions and capacity problems, Charles says, “Conditions in exile are tough and a large influx would make their lives even more challenging.”

The situation in Burundi is marked by sporadic violence, and the UNHCR estimates that 400 people have been killed since last year when President Pierre Nkurunzinza announced he would seek a third term in office. After surviving a coup attempt in May, he secured a third term in disputed elections in July, and the country has since plunged into civil war.