The UNHCR says a comprehensive solution has been found that will enable some 218,000 Burundian refugees who fled to Tanzania in 1972 to end their lengthy exile and begin new lives, either in Tanzania or in Burundi. From UNHCR headquarters in Geneva, Lisa Schlein reports the new program will solve one of the most protracted refugee problems in Africa.

Under the new program, Burundian refugees in Tanzania will be given the choice of repatriation or citizenship in Tanzania. The 218,000 refugees have been living in a state of limbo in three settlements in Tanzania for the past 35 years. They could neither lay down permanent roots in Tanzania nor go back to the country they had fled so many years ago.

UN refugee spokesman, Andrej Mahecic, tells VOA a breakthrough to this intractable problem came late last year. He says Tanzania, which had decided to close the "Old Settlements," worked with Burundi to find a lasting solution for the refugees.

"The great majority of these people will become new citizens of Tanzania and as such, the positive consideration of citizenship applications by the Tanzanian authorities is indeed an historic and unprecedented contribution to the regional stability," he said. 

Mahecic says 172,000 refugees have opted to remain in Tanzania and become citizens. This makes sense, he says, since most of these people were born in Tanzania and many others have spent most of their lives there.

"It is worthwhile mentioning that only 76,000 of the group that would like to locally integrate - only 76,000 are above the age of 18. So, as you can see, most of them were actually born in exile and have spent most of their lives in exile. They have attended schools in Tanzania and they are looking for an opportunity to continue their lives in Tanzania as new Tanzanian citizens," he added.

Mahecic says 46,000 refugees, who have maintained links with family and friends in Burundi, have decided to return home. At the end of this month, he says the UNHCR will begin repatriating them.

The UN refugee agency is seeking $34 million to help it implement this operation over the next two years.

Mahecic says the Burundian government, together with the UNHCR, will facilitate the reintegration of the returnees. For example, upon their return, he says the Burundians will receive a cash grant, help with school fees, medical care and be provided with tools and seeds for farming.

Mahecic says the agency will also use money to improve water systems and health clinics in Tanzania. It will support communities that receive the new citizens to strengthen their educational systems and vocational training centers.