The government is calling on its 380,000 refugees to return home, claiming the country is safe. Why does no-one believe them?
Since the start of 2017, the Burundian government has amplified its calls for refugees to return home. After nearly two years of crisis in which over 1,400 peopled are estimated to have been killed, the government insists the nation is now safe.
However, Bujumbura’s appeals have convinced few of the 380,000 people who have fled to neighbouring countries. On 15 February, when Interior Minister Pascal Barandagiye visited Nakivale camp in Uganda, for instance, many protested against his presence and message, insisting that they cannot return as long as President Pierre Nkurunziza is still in power and the violence continues.
“Many soldiers are dying now. They’re cutting their necks. They are torturing them. They are just killing. How can we trust there is peace when we see the deaths?” asked one young man, speaking to a Ugandan channel.
Shortly after the minister’s visit, news emerged that Uganda was readying to send refugees back to Burundi. But this position was later clarified, with the office of the Prime Minister reassuring that no Burundian was to be expelled or forcefully repatriated.
For the 34,000 Burundians in Uganda, this came as a relief. But why are Burundi’s hundreds of thousands of refugees so reluctant to return home?
1) The violence is still going on
As Burundi’s refugees have said on several occasions, the insecurity that led them to flee in the first place persists. News and images of civilians and soldiers being harassed, intimidated, tortured and even murdered continues to spread amongst exiles, largely through social networks.
Refugees fear that, if they return, they could also become victims of the repression that has targeted real or imagined opponents of the government, including officers who defected from the Forces Armées du Burundi, dubbed the ex-FAB.
Although the government has shut down independent radio stations and clamped down on the media, new forms of reporting and networks of sharing information have emerged. And through these, ongoing reports of abuse make clear that the violence continues.
On 9 February, for instance, police and ruling party youth – known as the Imbonerakure – arrested, in some cases violently, at least 30 people in the city of Makamba on the grounds that they did not have IDs. A day later, a local leader of the Frodebu-Nyakuri party in Kirundo province was detained and beaten by a group of Imbonerakure. Such reports are virtually a daily occurrence.
Moreover, the human rights situation has particularly deteriorated in the past month following an attack on the Mukoni military camp by unidentified armed men on 24 January. Since then, there has been an intensification of executions, torture and detention, mainly against ex-FAB. During reprisal operations following the assault, at least one former soldier was killed by the security forces and 15-25 arrested. And according to Ligue Iteka, a recently-banned local human rights organisation, twenty people were sentenced to up to 30 years imprisonment in an expeditious trial held on 26 January.
2) Little progress has been made in talks
The visit of Burundi’s Minister of Interior to Uganda last week coincided with a new session of dialogue mediated by former Tanzanian president Benjamin Mkapa.
This round of the Inter-Burundi talks was initially hopeful as it promised the participation of the main protagonists in the ongoing crisis and was meant to address, for the first time, “substantive issues”. But the talks were boycotted by the Burundian government, which argued that it cannot sit down with individuals under prosecution.
To show its hostility, organisations backing Nkurunziza called for demonstrations against the Arusha talks on Saturday. Protests took place in the capital and in some provinces, claiming the dialogue is illegitimate because of the participation of “enemies of democracy”.
In 2000, the signing of the Arusha Accords and ensuing ceasefire between the government and rebels created an environment in which more than 500,000 refugees felt safe to return. Until a similar political compromise is found today, few will consider taking that same journey home.
3) Nkurunziza is still at it
Burundi’s crisis began in April 2015 when President Nkurunziza declared his intention to run for a third term in office. Many believed this contravened the constitutional two-term limit but, amidst alleged heavy intimidation, the constitutional court deemed his bid legal based on the fact that Nkurunziza wasn’t elected by a popular vote for his first term.
Now, however, the government has reportedly begun work on a reform process that could lead to the abolition of presidential term limits altogether. According to the first Burundian vice-president, Gaston Sindimwo, the Council of Ministers on 15 February set up a commission to propose a draft amendment to the Constitution. If the reform is adopted, it would open the way for an unlimited reign for Nkurunziza and the ruling CNDD-FDD.
This would not only violate the spirit and letter of the 2000 Arusha Accords, but it would likely keep the hundreds of thousands of Burundians that have fled during the crisis to stay in exile. This possibility has raised concerns amongst regional facilitators who have vocally insisted that the current moment and context are not favourable for a constitutional amendment.
4) A humanitarian crisis back home
According to the UN Population Fund, three million Burundians – over a quarter of the population – are currently in need of urgent humanitarian assistance, including access to safe drinking water, food and health services.
This crisis is partly due to prolonged drought and torrential rains, which have destroyed crop yields, but it has been exacerbated by the deterioration of the social and economic conditions as well as sanctions imposed by donors and a reduction of the state budget.
For refugees in neighbouring countries, the prospect of returning and inflating the size of a population already struggling to survive is not an appealing one. Additionally, news of ongoing displacements due to hunger as well as instability reinforces their conviction that Burundi is not yet a safe country to which to return – despite what the government may insist publicly.
This article was jointly authored by a local network of peacebuilders operating in Burundi. They have asked to remain anonymous due to fears for their safety.