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UN Refugee Agency Concerned about Conditions for Returning Burundians

The U.N. Refugee Agency, UNHCR, said it is concerned about the rising numbers of Burundian refugees who are returning home. The UNHCR said the refugees are returning to unsafe areas because of deteriorating conditions at their camps in Tanzania.

Last month alone, the U.N. Refugee Agency said more than 4,000 Burundian refugees, who have been living in camps in Kibondo, western Tanzania, have gone home to the southern Burundi provinces of Ruyigi and Makamba.

U.N. Refugee Spokesman, Peter Kessler said the refugees went home on their own, without the help of the UNHCR. "This would be welcome news if they were going back to an area of their country which was safe," he said. "But, the south Ruyigi-Makamba are areas where intense fighting has taken place in recent weeks and where we believe this return would not be taking place without the measures that have been instituted by the local authorities in the Kibondo area of western Tanzania."

Mr. Kessler said Burundian refugees cite the declining levels of assistance available in Tanzania as one of the major reasons they are returning home.

For example, the World Food Program cut rations to the refugees by half early this year due to food shortages. In April, rations were partly restored to 72 percent of the normal amount.

In addition, Mr. Kessler said some refugees complain that new measures imposed by the Tanzanian authorities restrict their movements and confine them to the camps. "Before the recent restrictions announced by the local authorities, refugees were able to move freely within a four kilometer radius of their refugee camps," he said. "Many of these Burundians had used this opportunity to establish a small farm and to cultivate some crops to supplement their rations. They are now unable to do this and they are wholly dependent on food aid."

The UNHCR spokesman said his agency is also concerned about an additional 35,000 Burundian refugees who have sought asylum in Tanzania in the past year and a half.

He said these new arrivals do not have the coping skills of some of the long-time refugees. He said the newcomers have been particularly hard hit by the restrictions because they have not found suitable ways to supplement the assistance given to them by the World Food Program and the UNHCR.