December 30, 2016
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Burundi’s Refugee Crisis Propelled by Injustice and Broken Promises

The recent crisis in Burundi has reversed a major effort to repatriate Burundian refugees in the past decade. Lucy Hovil outlines her new research for the International Refugee Rights Initiative showing that the roots of the current displacement lie partly in the failure to reintegrate returning refugees.

By Lucy Hovil,

More than 325,000 people have fled Burundi and a further 100,000 have become internally displaced since April 2015, when President Pierre Nkurunziza announced that he would stand for a third term, leading to protests, unrest and a brutal crackdown.

This exodus effectively reversed a massive repatriation movement that saw approximately half a million refugees who fled conflict in Burundi return between 2002 and 2010.

The speed and scale of the recent displacement took some members of the international community by surprise, given that, despite the seriousness of the human rights situation, Burundi was not in a state of war.

But few Burundians were surprised. They had been seeing the signals of a pending crisis for months, if not years. Since coming to power, Nkurunziza‘s government had been growing increasingly repressive, deploying a toxic mix of media control, intimidation of civil society and arbitrary arrest of opposition members. The announcement of Nkurunziza’s intention to stand for a third term was simply the final straw.

A new report by the International Refugee Rights Initiative looks at the factors that led some people to flee Burundi and others to remain. Our team conducted 117 qualitative interviews in the capital, Bujumbura, southern Burundi and Tanzania, building on our previous research with Burundian refugees in Tanzania in 2008 and 2012, and with returnees in Burundi in 2009.

While the calculation that drives people out of their homes is, of course, highly complex, we found that Burundi’s history of displacement is crucial to understanding the recent mass exodus – in particular, the failure of the government and international community to adequately manage the complex process of refugee return and reintegration.

Burundi experienced periods of conflict in the 1970s and 1990s, and was in the process of negotiating a protracted and painful transition towards peace when the recent unrest broke out. The 2000 Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement had allowed nearly half a million people to return to Burundi, but there were serious problems reintegrating them.

While most of those who fled since 2015 did so out of fear – either of being directly targeted as a result of political affiliation, or a more general fear of the situation escalating into civil war – these reasons dovetailed with broader social, economic and cultural concerns, many of which related to land disputes exacerbated by shortcomings in the wide-scale repatriation process in the 2000s.

Many of the people we interviewed were disillusioned because promises made to them at the point of return were not kept. This injustice was further reinforced when, in the absence of sufficient assistance on return as promised, they were both economically marginalized and politically ignored – particularly those who were unable to reaccess their family land.

Thus, the president’s third term in office was simply a catalyst for deeper, structural issues, including the government’s failure to address injustices that lay at the heart of decades of conflict and led to a chronic deficit in civic trust.

The exodus also stemmed from a lingering failure to reabsorb hundreds of thousands of refugees and people displaced inside the country who had been living in external or internal exile for years or even decades. The marginalization and injustice that had driven them into exile in the first place was compounded by the failure to address these issues as part of a meaningful resolution to their exile.

In other words, neither the causes of their previous displacement – the genocide in 1972, or the decade-long civil war in the 1990s – nor the challenges that arose during the effort to repatriate them home have been sufficiently addressed or resolved. This latest round of displacement is therefore the continuation of events that are deeply embedded in Burundi’s post-colonial history, and the current crisis must be seen as part of a wider story of conflict and displacement that continues to haunt the country.

In one of the poorest countries in the world, the government’s failure to tackle these drivers of conflict and displacement, and to ensure that resources were accessible to the population rather than hoarded by the few in power, left people disillusioned with those in authority, regardless of their political affiliation, and with few opportunities to escape poverty. While people might technically have been called citizens of Burundi, the lack of substance to their citizenship has been a terrible disappointment to most.

It was hardly surprising, therefore, that at the first sign of trouble in Bujumbura, many took the decision to flee once more into exile, despite devastating consequences to them and their families. Their plight demonstrates that peace is never going to be sustainable when individuals or groups are left to carve out their lives on the margins – whether inside or outside the country.

Read the full IRRI report, “‘I Know the Consequences of War’: Understanding the Dynamics of Displacement in Burundi.”

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

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