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Burundi Exodus Fueling African Refugee Crisis, Charity Says

  • Reuters

FILE - Refugees who fled Burundi's violence and political tension wait to board a U.N. ship, at Kagunga on Lake Tanganyika, Tanzania, to be taken to the port city of Kigoma, May 23, 2015.

FILE - Refugees who fled Burundi's violence and political tension wait to board a U.N. ship, at Kagunga on Lake Tanganyika, Tanzania, to be taken to the port city of Kigoma, May 23, 2015.

A fivefold surge in Burundians fleeing to Tanzania to escape political violence in their troubled central African homeland is creating one of Africa's biggest refugee crises, a charity said Wednesday, amid warnings from activists of genocide threats.

Some 10,000 Burundians have arrived in neighboring Tanzania each month since August, increasing the population in three overcrowded northwestern camps to almost 250,000 people, said Doctors Without Borders, known by its French initials, MSF.

"This is rapidly becoming one of Africa's biggest refugee crises," David Nash, MSF's Tanzanian head of mission, said in a statement. "Unrest in Burundi [is] showing no signs of abating."

Almost 325,000 Burundians — 3 percent of the population — have fled since the crisis began in April 2015 when President Pierre Nkurunziza decided to run for a third term, which he secured in a disputed election in July 2015. Half of those fleeing Burundi have gone to Tanzania and others to Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The refugees say they are fleeing harassment, worsening hunger and an uncertain future, Nash told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a phone interview.

Crimes against humanity are being committed in Burundi, with the risk of intensifying to genocide, the International Federation for Human Rights and Burundian Human Rights League said Tuesday — charges the government has repeatedly denied.

Burundi intends to withdraw from the International Criminal Court, after the ICC announced plans in April to investigate reports of killings, disappearances and torture in the country.

FILE - Refugees who fled Burundi's violence and political tension sing in a speedboat taking them to a ship freighted by the U.N., at Kagunga on Lake Tanganyika, Tanzania, May 23, 2015, to be taken to the port city of Kigoma.

FILE - Refugees who fled Burundi's violence and political tension sing in a speedboat taking them to a ship freighted by the U.N., at Kagunga on Lake Tanganyika, Tanzania, May 23, 2015, to be taken to the port city of Kigoma.

Steady influx

With 462 Burundians and 42 Congolese arriving in Tanzania each day in November, the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) predicts the refugee population will reach 280,000 by the end of 2016.

"It has become necessary and urgent that additional camps be identified to enable dignified reception of new arrivals, many of whom are women and children," UNHCR's country representative Chansa Kapaya said in emailed comments to the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "UNHCR is confident that the repeated appeal to the government of Tanzania to identify additional camp sites will be successful."

A fourth site, Karago, has been approved, but it does not have enough water, Nash said, so new arrivals are being taken to the Nduta camp, which has already exceeded its 50,000 capacity.

The Tanzanian government has to displace and compensate its own people each time it makes space for a new camp, Nash said. Until then, refugees risk being held in mass shelters for up to 200 people, he said, as happened at the start of the crisis.

"It's a disaster for health," he said, as malaria is a major problem during the current rainy season. "Malaria spreads far quicker [in mass shelters] than when people are housed in family tents."

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