The U.N. refugee agency says one of the longest-running refugee sagas
in the world is ending with the return of 400 Burundians who fled to
Tanzania in 1972. The UNHCR has helped 53,500 refugees return to
Burundi from Tanzania since it began its voluntary repatriation
operation in March 2008.
The U.N. refugee agency calls the return of the last Burundian refugees from Tanzania an important milestone. The UNHCR says the 400 remaining refugees are departing for home from Katumba, one of the so-called "Old Settlements' in western Tanzania.
In a fitting symbolic move, the agency notes the refugees will travel by train from the same station where they arrived 37 years ago. That was when they fled the eruption of ethnic violence, which claimed the lives of an estimated 200,000 Burundian civilians.
The UNHCR says the voluntary repatriation of the 1972 Burundian refugees was part of a landmark program launched with the Tanzanian government to end this protracted refugee situation.
U.N. refugee spokesman, Andrej Mahecic, says 162,000 refugees, who did not wish to return home, have applied for Tanzanian citizenship.
"In the 37 years, there are many young generations who have been born in Tanzania," he said. "They do not speak French. They have grown in the Tanzanian environment and that is why many of them are staying in Tanzania. In fact, almost three quarters. Those who decided to go back home have reasons, whether these were the family links or these were some other reasons, whether it was the issue of land and so on."
Since August, some 29,000 Burundian refugees have been naturalized. And, the Tanzanian government says it aims to complete the process by the end of the year for the remaining 133,000 applicants.
Mahecic says the UNHCR is helping the refugees who return to Burundi solve problems they face in reclaiming their land. He says the agency provides them with temporary shelter and supports the peaceful resolution of land disputes arising from their long absence.
"All the returnees are also being provided with packages of aid," said Mahecic. "And, then for those who decide to return, but have no land to return to, together with other UN partners, we have been engaged in constructing villages who are integrated in the existing communities where these people, when they are brought back, basically they are integrated. We are looking for ways how to make, if they do not live off the land, what are the other options in terms of their long-term sustainability."
Tanzania also hosts Burundian refugees who fled their country in 1993. They were mainly hosted in refugee camps in Kigoma and Kagera provinces in the northwest.
Mahecic says all the camps have been closed, with the exception of one in Mtabila. He says only 36,000 Burundian refugees remain in that camp. He adds there is an active, separate repatriation operation going on for this group of people.