Aid groups can’t keep up with constant flow of Burundian refugees

Policemen patrol the Musaga district of Bujumbura, Burundi, July 20, 2015. (Credit: AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

Hundreds of refugees are leaving Burundi for neighboring Tanzania each day. Political tensions in the country continue to simmer, causing Burundians to flee, and there is mounting global concern that violence could escalate very quickly. Now, aid groups say they are struggling to support the more than 110,000 refugees already in Tanzania.

A joint statement by Oxfam, HelpAge International, Plan International, Save the Children, International Rescue Committee and the Danish Refugee Council on Monday stated that their collective Burundian refugee response is significantly underfunded. They are struggling to meet the needs of the current number of refugees, and worry about a sudden spike in the number of people fleeing violence.

“Nyarugusu camp is already the third-largest refugee camp in the world, and Nduta is growing by the day, yet the situation for Burundians in Tanzania is struggling for attention and adequate funding,” said Jane Foster, country director for Oxfam in Tanzania.

The Burundian refugee response is grossly underfunded. Aid groups have raised $104 million of the $306 million need for this year. More than 200,000 people have left Burundi for neighboring countries – the majority go to Tanzania. Aid groups sounded the alarm in April and May that they were ill equipped to meet the needs of the surge of refugees that followed a failed coup attempt. Refugees crammed together on the beach in Kagunga experienced a deadly cholera outbreak in late May.

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More than 200 people have died in Burundi since April. Demonstrations and protests against President Pierre Nkurunziza’s successful bid for a third term, despite constitutional limits of two, have pitted government officials against those opposed to Nkurunziza. Prominent officials, human rights activists and their family members have been assassinated or fled the country. Government officials say that opponents seek to destabilize the country and carry out attacks – claims the government doesn’t bother substantiate.

Today, the government suspended 10 civil society groups. They are accused of fueling violence in the country. It is the latest in a string of moves by the Nkurunziza administration to consolidate power and shut down the opposition. The move came shortly after the U.S. imposed sanctions on four state officials connected with the violence, in step with recent European Union sanctions.

“President Nkurunziza’s pursuit of a third term in office has precipitated a humanitarian, economic and security crisis,” said Ned Price, spokesman of the National Security Council, in a statement. “Burundi is on the precipice, but there is a clear path available to Burundi’s leaders to avoid further violence and reach a political solution.”

The attacks and rhetoric by the Burundian government are cause for serious concern. Some say the current situation is eerily familiar to the run-up to the 1994 Rwandan genocide. But others draw a distinction between the political violence and genocide, pointing to the definition of genocide as violence “with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” And as political scientists Kate Cronin-Furman and MIchael Broache argue in the Monkey Cage blog, the distinction matters.

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“Most immediately, clarity about who is at risk of being attacked, and why, is crucial for protection efforts. When threatened atrocities are ethnic in nature, creating humanitarian safe-zones or policing disputed areas may reduce risk. But when violence is based on political allegiance, such interventions are not likely to save lives,” they wrote.

Regardless, there is broad agreement that the situation in Burundi is deeply concerning. Violence of either sort will drive people out of the country, and those who stay remain vulnerable. Despite pleas from aid groups, the public isn’t paying much attention.

“While refugees in Europe are making headlines, the international community must also remember that the situation for Burundians in neighboring countries is equally devastating,” said Elijah Okeyo, country director for International Rescue Committee in Tanzania.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.