Nearly 600 Burundian refugees have left Tanzania to return to their home country, the United Nations said – the first batch in the mass repatriation of hundreds of thousands of people who fled political violence in Burundi four years ago.
A Tanzanian government official and the UN said all of Thursday’s returns had been voluntary.
More than 400,000 Burundians left the country following a surge of political violence in 2015 when President Pierre Nkurunziza ran for a third disputed term in office and opponents accused him of breaching the constitution.
Hundreds of people were killed in the ensuing unrest.
Nkurunziza won the election again and, the following year, Burundi suspended all cooperation with the UN human rights office in the country when a UN-commissioned report accused the government and its supporters of being responsible for crimes against humanity.
Currently, some 182,000 Burundians are living in three camps in Tanzania, according to the UN.
“All refugees who had registered to return home voluntarily from all camps gathered at Nduta camp and departed from there,” said Athuman Igwe, an official who is responsible for coordinating refugee affairs in Kigoma, western Tanzania.
The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, said it had organised 590 Burundian refugees’ journey home in coordination with the UN’s International Organization of Migration.
It said it had not promoted the repatriation programme but was ready to help anyone who wanted to go back.
“We urge the governments of Tanzania and Burundi to respect their commitments to uphold international obligations and ensure that any refugee returns remain voluntary and that no refugee or asylum seeker is returned to Burundi against their will,” it added in a statement.
A UN commission on Burundi reported last month that there was a risk of a fresh wave of atrocities as the 2020 election approaches in the landlocked state with its political crisis unresolved.
But Burundi and Tanzania agreed in August to start repatriating the refugees, saying that conditions in Burundi had improved.
Some refugees have expressed fears that they might be forcibly returned to Burundi, but government spokesman Hassan Abbas said on Thursday that “nobody will be forced to go back”.
Nevertheless, he insisted “Burundi is peaceful and they are busy preparing for elections next year”.
“Tanzania respects the international agreements on refugees and will ensure the refugees’ relocation process is handled carefully,” he told reporters.
Thursday’s returnees arrived on eight buses in Gisuru in eastern Burundi, where there is a transit centre for returning refugees, witnesses told the AFP news agency.
“These returnees will stay in the camp until tomorrow [Friday], before being sent to their home towns with a kit of supplies to last them three months,” a Burundian official told AFP, on condition of anonymity.
The UNHCR says it has facilitated the voluntary return of almost 75,000 refugees since September 2017, under a deal with Burundi and Tanzania.
According to the agency, there are 71,000 Burundian refugees in Rwanda, 45,000 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and 43,000 in Uganda.