The U.N. refugee agency welcomed the Tanzanian government's decision to extend the deadline for the voluntary repatriation of Burundian refugees. The UNHCR said about 36,000 refugees were scheduled to leave the Mtabila refugee camp in Kasulu district in northwestern Tanzania by June 30.
The last remaining camp hosting Burundian refugees in Tanzania was scheduled to close, after all its residents had voluntarily left for home. But now the camp, which has been home to the Burundians since the 1990's, will remain open awhile longer.
U.N. refugee spokesman William Spindler said the grace period accorded by Tanzania's Home Affairs Minister will give the refugees the chance to plan their return during the traditional high season for repatriation. This runs to the end of September.
"The Minister also reiterated that no refugee will be forcibly returned and reaffirmed his government's commitment to uphold international laws and standards relating to the protection of refugees," Spindler said. "The Burundian peace process has paved the way for the return of one of Africa's longest staying refugee populations. Since 2002, UNHCR has assisted the voluntary repatriation of over 485,000 Burundian refugees from the neighboring countries of Tanzania, Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda," he added.
During the past 37 years, Burundi's conflict has triggered large waves of displacement. The remaining 36,000 refugees in Mtabila camp fled to Tanzania to escape the ethnic violence in Burundi during the past 16 years.
Spindler said once this group returns home permanently, that will put an end to the last camp for Burundian refugees in Tanzania.
"There might be a residual caseload, a residual group of people staying behind and they would be integrated locally. And, we have programs for that," he said. "In some cases, some people have been - I mean after 20 years in the country, many of them have strong roots and they will not want to return home. So, they have the possibility of staying as well."
In addition to this group of refugees, Tanzania also hosted hundreds of thousands of Burundians who fled their country in 1972. In a landmark decision in 2008, the Tanzanian government gave these long-exiled refugees the choice of returning home or of applying for Tanzanian citizenship.
About 165,000 Burundians decided to stay and applied for naturalization. Another 55,000 chose to return home.