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UN Appeals for Nearly $300M for Burundi Refugees

FILE - Refugees who fled Burundi's violence and political tensions 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.

The U.N. refugee agency and 35 partners report $296 million is needed this year to provide life-saving assistance to 345,000 Burundian refugees living in desperate conditions in neighboring Tanzania, Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda.

UNHCR reports thousands of Burundians are going hungry because food rations have been cut for lack of money. The health of many people is on a knife’s edge because medicine is in short supply and shelter is inadequate, it says. Schools are overcrowded, with many children missing out on an education.

The UNHCR says Burundian refugees are in dire straits because the world pays scant attention to their plight and responds poorly to appeals for aid.

Agency spokesman Charlie Yaxley said children, who make up more than half of the refugee population, bear the brunt of this serious underfunding.

He said many children have become separated from their families while fleeing from Burundi. He said many are traumatized from the violence they have witnessed. He said there is little money to provide them with the psychological and social care they need.

“Women and girls are suffering high levels of sexual and gender-based violence and exploitation," Yaxley said. "... Last year, food cuts were implemented in Tanzania, DRC and Rwanda. Families have been regularly left without enough food to last until the end of the month. And this has seen women and girls resorting to negative coping mechanisms, including survival sex, and forced and early marriage."

Conditions in the camps are so bad that a number of refugees are opting to go home, Yaxley said. He told VOA about 57,000 Burundians have returned since the middle of 2017. He said some report the security situation overall has improved. Nevertheless, he said an average of 300 Burundians a month continue to flee the country.

“They cite persecution, harassment and fear of attack as their reasons for fleeing. There also are reports from those fleeing of food insecurity as well. So, we do urge States to first of all continue providing asylum and open borders to those seeking international protection,” Yaxley said.

The UNHCR said it does not believe conditions in Burundi are currently conducive to promote returns. It added that nobody now should be returned to Burundi without his or her "full and informed consent.”