The World Food Program and U.N. refugee agency are appealing for $20 million to help tens of thousands of Burundi refugees return home after years of exile in Tanzania. They warn that food rations for Burundians will have to be cut across the board, in both Tanzania and Burundi, to make the food stretch until the end of the year if new funds are not available. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from Geneva.

Many of the 149,000 Burundian refugees living in Tanzania want to go home now that peace has been restored in their country. But these refugees have few or no resources and will need help to restart their lives upon their return.

The two U.N. agencies warn the repatriation operation is likely to collapse without additional funds. World Food Program spokesman Simon Pluess says food assistance for the returnees and for 815,000 hungry people in Burundi are in jeopardy because the World Food Program is low on cash.

"The period is good for Burundian refugees to go home because security has improved significantly," said Pluess. "And what refugees tell us is that if the food security situation is good and the prospects are good, then the prospects for returning refugees are much better and there is a much higher chance that they can actually reinsert in their communities again."

Pluess says returning refugees receive a two-month ration as they start their journey in Tanzania. He says they are given vouchers, which they can exchange for the remaining four-month supply due to them when they get close to their homes in Burundi.

The U.N. agencies say the funding crunch is coming at the same time the Government of Tanzania is pushing for more refugees to return home.

U.N. refugee agency spokeswoman Jennifer Pagonis rejects a suggestion that Tanzania's government might deport the refugees.

"I think what the Tanzanian authorities are saying is that Burundi is peaceful now and these people have been in Tanzania for a considerable period of time and they would like them to return back if the country is peaceful," said Pagonis.

"Obviously, if they do not have enough food there or they feel very uncertain about the circumstances that they are going back to, that they are not going to have enough to eat, they are not going to have crops to plant, then that is something that WFP and UNHCR can work together on to try and make that possible," she added. 

More than 340,000 refugees have returned voluntarily to Burundi since 2002. In 1972 and again in 1993, inter-ethnic violence forced hundreds of thousands of Burundians to flee to neighboring countries.

Tanzania has provided refuge to those refugees for more than three decades. Tanzania hosts nearly one half million refugees from Burundi and the Congo, making it one of the largest asylum countries in Africa.