Displaced from Burundi – again

Published: 12 Dec 2016
By: Lucy Hovil

In Burundi, people know only too well the consequences of war. And one of the most tangible consequences of war is displacement. But not only does war lead to displacement, failures to create a viable end to displacement can create the conditions for further unrest. This is precisely what has happened in Burundi, where a refugee crisis has unfolded far away from the gaze of a western media.

While a peace deal followed by a massive repatriation process in which over half a million refugees returned to the country between 2002 and 2010 gave the appearance of stability, in reality these trappings only went skin deep. The much harder and time-consuming work of reconstruction and the genuine reintegration of returnees did not fit well with the short attention spans (or at least budgets) of government and UN agencies, particularly in a country that was seen to have minimal strategic value.

While Burundi is not currently in a situation of civil war, since April 2015 it has been in the midst of a political crisis, sparked by the announcement that President Pierre Nkurunziza would stand for a third time, arguably in contravention of the constitution. The country is holding its collective breath waiting to see if the situation will escalate, and more than 325,000 people Burundians have fled the country and a further 100,000 have become internally displaced. The scale and speed of this exodus took some by surprise given the lack of open armed conflict in Burundi (notwithstanding the seriousness of the human rights situation). But few Burundians were surprised. They had been reading the signs of pending trouble for months, if not years. Since coming to power, the government has been deploying a toxic mix of media control, intimidation of civil society and arbitrary arrest of opposition. For many, the announcement by the President of his intention to stand for a third term was simply the final straw. With a history of conflict that weighs heavily on them, many did not wait to see where this would lead.

But while it looks like President Nkurunziza is holding the whole country to ransom – and, in many respects, he is – Burundi’s problems lie far deeper than the actions of one man. In particular, it is clear that neither the causes of displacement that led to previous rounds of exile – whether as a result of genocide in 1972, or the decade-long civil war in the 1990s – nor the challenges that arose as a result of a wide-scale repatriation process, have been sufficiently resolved. This latest round of displacement, therefore, is the continuation of events that are deeply embedded in Burundi’s post-colonial history, and the current crisis is part of a wider story of conflict and displacement that continues to haunt the country.

That is not to say that, prior to the recent unrest, significant progress had not been made. It had. A comprehensive and wide ranging political agreement was forged in the Arusha Peace Accord and many of its most important elements were implemented, not least the restructuring of the army to ensure ethnic diversity, which has so far acted with a degree of restraint – although it is hard to say how long this will last. Furthermore, although everyone fears that the ethnic genie will be let out of the bottle as a result of the current crisis, so far it has not: the situation remains political, and, despite some efforts, the spoilers of peace have not yet been able to manipulate ethnicity into becoming the primary tool for generating violence.

A report just published by the International Refugee Rights Initiative explores some of the dynamics behind this rapid and large-scale displacement by seeking to understand why some chose to flee and others stayed. It is based on 117 individual interviews in the capital, Bujumbura, across the south of the country, and with refugees living in camps in Tanzania.

The calculation that drives people to leave their homes is, of course, highly complex. While some fled as a result of being directly targeted for their political affiliation or activity, many had not been directly affected by the crisis when they decided to leave, inasmuch as their lives were not in direct danger. Instead, they fled out fear that the current crisis would escalate, a fear that was, in part, stoked by rumours of impending war and destruction combined with previous experiences of conflict and displacement. Many of those who had lived through Burundi’s wars of the early 1970s and/or the 1990s knew only too well the terrible damage that conflict can inflict and were not prepared to wait and see how this crisis would develop.

At the same time, broader social, economic and cultural concerns – many of which relate to land disputes that were exacerbated by the repatriation process in the 2000s – were also a factor in pushing some to flee. The political crisis has further undermined the country’s fragile economy: people who were poor before are now barely able to survive. And, of course, fleeing has inevitably made people even poorer. Many told stories of how they had sold what little assets they had at reduced prices to pay for transport; and some who have since returned have found that what they left behind has been lost or taken.

Conspicuous throughout the interviews was that most see their fragile economic situation to be primarily the result of mismanagement by the government, through corruption and the failure to ensure proper reconstruction and recovery since the war. This perception was particularly acute in the case of those who had returned after having been refugees. While some logistical assistance was provided to returnees following the signing of the Arusha Agreement, this assistance was insufficient to ensure genuine reintegration. It is no coincidence, therefore, that a considerable number of those who have fled since April 2015 had previously been displaced. Some were born and grew up in Tanzania but had returned to Burundi in the 2000s hopeful that they could make a new life for themselves. Instead, many have struggled to reclaim their land and reintegrate into the communities from which they, or their families, had once fled, and expressed frustration that the government had lied to them about the support they would receive. While this was not necessarily the primary reason they fled this time, it had certainly increased their vulnerability. And while the findings documented some who had fled in mid-2015 and have since returned, hundreds of thousands remain in exile waiting to see what will happen next.

Ultimately, therefore, the situation facing those who are displaced from or within Burundi, or who are struggling to make ends meet in a context of political turmoil, points to the many dysfunctions in a national government that has done little to meet the deficit in civic trust in the aftermath of years of war; and an international system that has failed to adequately support a process that addresses both causes and consequences of displacement in a durable way. In the meantime, many Burundians – whether still in their homes or exiled from them – are struggling to survive with limited assistance in the camps and little help filtering down to those in the villages. And while it is important not to overlook what had been achieved in the country prior to the escalation of the current political crisis – including tackling the issue of identity-based politics head-on – it is clear that this crisis has set progress back significantly.

At the very least, a major lesson needs to be learned that inadequate support of wide-scale repatriation processes is both inefficient and short-sighted. A little more investment a few years ago might have at least alleviated the scale and speed of the current displacement even if not prevented it altogether. As Burundi has shown, while any process of genuinely ending displacement is painfully long, fragile and costly, the alternative is far, far worse.

Programmes: Causes of Displacement, Resolving Displacement, Rights in Exile
Regions: Great Lakes Region, Burundi
Type: IRRI Blog