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Refugee children who returned from Tanzania study together with their classmates in a local church in Nyanza Lake, southern Burundi (Danilo Giannese/JRS).
Bujumbura, 31 January 2013 – In the last few weeks approximately 34,000 Burundian refugees have returned home following the closure of Mtabila camp in western Tanzania. Many returnees are coming home after 20 years in exile, while for others, born and raised in Tanzania, it is their first time in Burundi.

For the returnees it is the moment to begin a new life and reintegrate into their home societies; for the local population it is an opportunity to welcome them and make them feel at home.

"I'm really happy to have returned home to Burundi after so much time. Now I really feel like rebuilding my life and making a contribution to the development of my country", said Josephine Nzokirantevye, 67 year-old widow and mother of one, who fled the worsening violence in 1997.

The Burundian civil war engulfed the small central African nation between 1993 and 2005, causing the death of more than 300,000 people. 

For more than fifteen years, Josephine lived in Mtabila camp.

"We lived in extremely precarious conditions, depending on humanitarian organisations for everything. I have been sick for some time, so I couldn't even go and work in the fields to make a living", Josephine said.

Repatriation. Josephine returned to Burundi last December, as part of the massive refugee repatriation operation agreed upon by the governments of Tanzania and Burundi. The operation lasted from 31 October until 11 December 2012, involving the transfer home of 33,819 people.

The repatriation operation was not voluntary, given that most refugees would have preferred to stay in Tanzania, fearing insecurity and the difficulties of reintegrating back into Burundian society.

Nevertheless, the Tanzanian government had already decided that Mtabila camp, the last remaining camp hosting Burundian refugees, would close on 31 December. The refugees, therefore, had to return home, as there were no longer any reasons, according to the authorities, to provide them with international protection. More than a half million Burundian refugees have returned home from Tanzania since 2002.

The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) subsequently carried out individual interviews with refugees who feared returning home and identified 2,715 individuals still in need of international protection. For the others, UNHCR began raising awareness among the refugee population in Mtabila, and organising their transfer to Burundi.

Upon arrival in Burundi, the refugees received an integration kit – financial assistance, food for six months, sanitary materials, a temporary medical card etc.

The local authorities are responsible for the return and reception of the refugees to their home communities, where most will be able to reclaim their land. However, approximately 500 of the refugees have been unable to do so. In many cases, this is because they were born outside Burundi and do not know where the land, which once belonged to their parents, is.

Integration difficulties. "The neighbours graciously welcomed me and there are no problems or misunderstandings between us. And if I need some water I know I can ask them. The only worry I have is that the returnees will not be able to find jobs", added Josephine.

For other returnees, coming home has been anything but the realisation of a dream.

"I was born in the Congo because my parents fled from Burundi in 1972. Then with the war in Congo in 1996, we fled to Tanzania, where we lived in Mtabila camp until a few days ago", said Marcien Sindahibura, 34 year-old father of three children, who currently lives in one of the temporary reception centres established for returnees.

"I had never been to Burundi before; I don't know the language and do not have any farm land. I had a job as a fisherman in Tanzania, here I don't have anything. I ask myself what will happen in the future. I don't know any local people and I don't believe they will welcome us warmly. For me it would have been better to return to Congo", Marcien said.

Showing hospitality and a welcoming spirit towards the former refugees is the new challenge facing the population and the Burundian authorities in the coming months.

Danilo Giannese, JRS Great Lakes Africa Communications and Advocacy Officer