Burundi will soon mark two years since it was propelled into a political crisis by President Pierre Nkurunziza’s determination to be elected to a third term in power. As it stands, more than 327,000 of Burundi’s 11 million people have now sought refuge outside the country according to UN figures from early 2017 – nearly all fleeing since the crisis erupted.
This calamity reverses a decade of refugee returns after the 1993-2005 civil war, and a new surge of people fleeing in late-2016 risks overwhelming the woefully underfunded humanitarian response.
Most live in camps in neighbouring Tanzania, which has hosted Burundian refugees since the 1970s. Others are in Uganda, Rwanda or the Democratic Republic of Congo, while a smaller number live in urban centres, especially Kigali, where many are not registered as refugees.
Despite many people fleeing, the Burundian government has been trying to project a sense of control, arguing that the crisis has passed. It claims that most refugees are either insurgents or have fallen victim to the economic problems brought about, in their eyes, by international sanctions.
At the UN General Assembly in September 2016, Burundi’s foreign minister controversially claimed that many of its refugees are returning voluntarily and that the country was now stable enough for a policy of returns to be pursued. However, the assassination of a government minister on 1 January, a failed attack on a government spokesman in November, and numerous less high-profile acts of violence and terror, show that Burundi remains deeply troubled.
At the same time, East African Community mediation led by former Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa reached an impasse in December when he stated that the legitimacy of President Nkurunziza should not be questioned. The exiled opposition read this as blatant support for what they see as a dictatorial regime. The breakdown in mediation will further dent refugees’ hopes of an early resolution to the crisis and increase their frustrations.
During the course of 2016, Crisis Group interviewed over 50 Burundian refugees from all walks of life, and from both Tutsi and Hutu ethnic communities, in Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya and, for a few with some money and connections, Belgium. We asked three questions: How and why did you leave the country? What problems do you face in exile? And how do you envisage your future and that of your country?
From the responses, and drawing on long, field research-based knowledge of Burundi, three broad conclusions emerged.
1) The refugee crisis is a result of political oppression
Despite government statements, which some diplomats and international officials have been willing to believe, most exiles have fled a violent political crisis, many in fear for their lives. The impression of internal stability projected by the government is simply incompatible with the still-growing number of refugees.
Nearly all we spoke to fled violence by the police, intelligence services or the ruling party’s militia, the Imbonerakure, who have been threatening, abducting and killing opponents (or so-called opponents) throughout the country.
Repression spiked in the immediate aftermath of the attempted coup against Nkurunziza in May 2015 and after an attack on military camps in December 2015. Following the December assaults, security forces and the Imbonerakure increasingly targeted Tutsis.
Some refugees left the country having been tipped off that their life was in danger, while others had already been attacked or had lost relatives. Police controls on the country’s borders increasingly forced refugees to pay their way through or sneak out at night.
Some took children with them, others left family members behind. Some have friends in detention. We gathered accounts of rape, some ethnically targeted, and of torture. All this attests to political violence being at the heart of decisions to leave.
2) Burundi’s human capital is draining away
The flight of many of the country’s best educated and most entrepreneurial citizens, and a large number of its teachers, will cause significant long-term damage. It will also add to a growing economic crisis with traditional donors and investors shunning the country.
A very small minority of refugees with social connections or economic capital have been able to start a small business or find employment with relatives. But many have lost their businesses and properties and are seeking out menial work far below their qualifications, generating frustration and hurt pride. Others have had to leave their land, in many cases only recently recovered after previous periods of exile. A number of refugees had fled the country before, in some cases up to five times.
The energy and capacity formerly engaged in working to build up the Burundian economy or educating its future workforce is now absorbed by daily problems: feeding a family; dealing with administration; negotiating relations with local communities; finding employment; getting medical care, including dealing with psychological and physical trauma; accessing services in a foreign language; or, for the elite, trying to travel without an up-to-date Burundian passport.
3) The refugee crisis will have long-term political consequences
Burundi has spent over ten years recovering from a brutal civil war and trying to regain greater social cohesion. But the recent violence and oppression has brought the fractures of the past back to the surface, accentuated by and accelerating the outflow of refugees.
As recent research shows, many of those who have fled were particularly vulnerable because they were never properly integrated when they returned after the civil war. Many were regarded as politically suspect and land restitution was very poorly managed.
Despite their problems abroad, many are determined to stay politically active. One young exile in Kigali said that to not engage in politics would be a “betrayal of those left behind”. He had joined the recently-formed International Movement of Burundian Youth (MIJB) to make sure the voice of young people in exile was heard in debates on the country’s future.
Such initiatives demonstrate a desire for solidarity, not just among refugees, but with those left behind. However, repression by the Burundian government, including assassination attempts, has spread to asylum countries, generating mistrust among Burundian exiles who often wonder who may be in the pay of the authorities in Bujumbura.
A population of over 300,000 refugees – mainly young, some educated and with justified grievances against the government – is a ticking time bomb in a region where political causes often end up being fought for in the bush.
Those we talked to saw their future with a mix of fear and uncertainty. The vast majority held President Nkurunziza responsible for the crisis and constantly underlined the problem of impunity. Many feared being forced to return. With time, this anger has led to a desire amongst some to take up arms. But despite this, some also expressed hope for their country, citing the low levels of ethnic violence since the end of the war.
Most of all, our research shows that refugees are not mere victims but also active citizens, and while some may resign themselves to their fate or seek to move further abroad, many will remain actively engaged in their country’s problems. Their voices must be heard in future political dialogues.
Richard Moncrieff started as Crisis Group’s Central Africa Project Director in January 2016, overseeing all work on Central Africa.
Originally published in African Arguments