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Repeated migrations and increasing vulnerability in Burundi

By Eliane Luthi

As the recent violence in Burundi has forced many to flee across the border to Tanzania, and sometimes back home again, the social safety net, already fragile, has begun to fray.

KABONGA, Burundi, 20 August 2015 – “We had to leave the camp during the night,” remembers Ernestine Ntirampeba, 25. “I put my smallest daughter on my back, and my other daughter walked. The children were complaining – they were hungry. I kept telling them to be patient.”

© UNICEF Burundi/2015/Nijimbere
“I told them to be patient, that we would be home soon,” says Ernestine, a single mother, of her 5-day walk across fields and village paths back to Burundi from the Nyarugusu camp in Tanzania, where she had fled with daughters Sifa, 2, and Uwezo, 7.

Ernestine is sitting outside her modest home in Kabonga, in southern Burundi, with her two daughters, Sifa, 2, and Uwezo, 7. A single mom who was born as a refugee in Tanzania, she makes a living by helping others farm their land.

Like others in this area just a stone’s throw from the border, as soon as election-related violence began in Burundi’s capital, Bujumbura, Ernestine began seeing more and more people cross the border to seek refuge in Tanzania – as of mid-August, more than 83,000 had made the journey, the majority of them children.

“I started seeing people from Rumonge passing through and going to Tanzania,” Ernestine says, referring to a district around 50 km to the north. “My uncle left; even my neighbors left. I was scared. So I left with the kids on foot to Kagunga one night at around 2 in the morning. The borders were closed, so I crossed through the forest.”

“The men usually stay behind. They send their wives and children across the border,” explains a local authority in Nyanza Lac who started noticing departures from the four villages in the area in early May. “If they feel like the situation is getting worse, then the men leave too.”

All along the road to the border stand empty houses, some with missing roofs – often a sign of valuable corrugated iron being sold before the owners depart. The high proportion of children leaving has also led to empty school benches in primary schools in the border area: At the end of the school year at the primary school of Kabonga I, the first-grade class, usually overcrowded with 94 children in one classroom, numbered only 32 pupils.

High hopes

The decision to stay or go is still a difficult one for families, and for those who do leave, the conditions on the other side of the border are not always as expected.

© UNICEF Burundi/2015/Nijimbere
The main road in southern Burundi leads to Nyanza Lac, from where thousands of Burundians have crossed into Tanzania since violent political clashes have paralysed the country.

“There were so many of us in Nyarugusu,” recalls Ernestine, speaking of the main camp in Tanzania where Burundian refugees are currently hosted. “There wasn’t enough food or firewood for cooking for all of us, and there were many cases of cholera. We stayed a month, but then we decided it was better to go back home. There were other children in our group when we started walking back at night. It took us five days to get back home. We walked through the forests, slept outside, or if we managed to find a house that would take us in, we would sleep on the floor of a kitchen.”

Ernestine is part of a small group of Burundians who fled to Tanzania and then decided to return to Burundi on their own. The vast majority who have crossed over remain in Tanzania, where UNICEF and its partners are working to respond to humanitarian needs, providing supplies for health, nutrition, and water and sanitation, and supporting protection of the vulnerable.

Despite her high hopes, Ernestine was in for another shock when she arrived home.

“I was happy when I got home,” she says, wistfully looking out into the distance. “I thought, even if I have nothing to eat, at least we have a place to sleep. I wanted to enter the house, and then I saw that the padlock I’d left on my house was gone. I tried to stay calm. I entered the house and saw that my plates and my jerry cans were gone. Luckily some of the pots were still there.”

© UNICEF Burundi/2015/Nijimbere
Burundians leaving for Tanzania sometimes sell the metal roofing on their houses to pay for their trip, or a house that has been abandoned might have its roof stolen.

Unfortunately, Ernestine is not the only community member to have gone through this traumatizing experience. Repeated cross-border migration in the Nyanza Lac area is increasing people’s vulnerability, which was already high prior to the recent crisis – 81 per cent of Burundi’s population lives on US$1.25 per day or less, and Burundi remains at the top of the Global Hunger Index.

“Since I came back, I can’t find work,” Ernestine says. “My neighbors gave me some sugar cane that I can sell on the market while I wait for people to hire me to work on their land again. The problem is, they’ve all left.”

UNICEF is responding to the situation of children and women in Burundi and Tanzania by coordinating with partners to track movements of Burundian children and families on the move and ensuring that they are safe and cared for through protection services, health care and emergency cholera response, and provision of nutrition supplies.



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