NAKIVALE REFUGEE CAMP, Uganda – Seated on a mat, one of her few possessions, Anabelle Ndengeye vowed to ignore the Burundian government’s call for her and other refugees to come back home.
“I will not go back to Burundi,” said the 35-year-old mother of three, who lives in in Uganda’s Nakivale refugee camp. “My security is not ensured.”
Fighters from the Imbonerakure militia, which is affiliated with the ruling party of Burundian president Pierre Nkurunziza, have already taken too much from her. “I escaped death and there is no way I can go back and face the same militia group who killed my husband,” she said.
Around 420,000 refugees have fled Burundi since Nkurunziza announced that he would seek a third term in office in 2015, sparking massive protests, a failed coup attempt and a deadly crackdown. They are mostly scattered across Tanzania, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda.
Now Nkurunziza insists it’s time for the refugees to come back.
“We encourage all Burundians to return to their country because it’s now peaceful,” Burundian minister for home affairs Pascal Barandagiye recently told journalists in the capital, Bujumbura. “We have made efforts to ensure there is peace everywhere. We want refugees to return and contribute to the country’s development.”
Yet refugees continue to flee the country, and describe ongoing repression by Burundi’s security forces and the Imbonerakure, according to Amnesty International’s recent report, which warns of mounting pressure on Burundians to go back before it’s safe to do so.
The president of Tanzania, which hosts the largest number of Burundian refugees, threatened in July to send all Burundians home. Burundi recently signed a deal with the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) to voluntarily repatriate almost 12,000 refugees to Burundi by the end of the year. Around 300 Burundians are going home every week, according to Tanzanian officials.
Most refugees, such as Ndengeye, do not want to go back. The number who have registered to return are a small fraction of the more than 240,000 Burundians in Tanzania.
Refugees living in the Nduta camp in northwest Tanzania’s Kigoma District claim Tanzanian officials are coercing them to go home.
“The government does not want us to be here,” said Henry Ntawizera, a father of two who arrived at the camp in February. “Nobody wants to go back to Burundi because the security situation is still severe. People are still running out of the country and there’s no way you can tell people to go back.”
Refugees have been promised assistance if they agree to return, and threatened with forced repatriation if they don’t, swaying some to sign up, he said.
“They are promising to provide us with financial support if we agree to go back to Burundi,” he said. “If we don’t take the offer then we will be repatriated by force. So, many people are agreeing to take the offer to avoid being taken out of the camps by force.”
A major shortfall in international aid to Burundian refugees – the U.N. refugee agency’s appeal is only 19 percent funded – is making their situation even more precarious. Many refugees in Tanzania said they were going to bed hungry after the U.N. reduced their food rations in recent months. School spaces are scarce, as are most amenities.
“I want to go back to my country,” said Yvone Umuhire, 40, a mother of two staying in Nduta camp who has registered for voluntary repatriation. “My children have not been going to school since we arrived here last year. I need them to go school. Life is so bad here. No clinic, food, water and toilets.”
The U.N. describes similar scant facilities and services in other camps in the region where Burundian refugees have sought refuge.
In Nakivale camp in Uganda, where 45,000 Burundians live among 75,000 refugees from elsewhere, Ugandan minister for relief, disaster preparedness and refugees Hillary Onek said his country would not force refugees to go back, though he hoped many would return voluntarily.
The U.N.’s Commission of Inquiry on Burundi released a report last month documenting torture and extrajudicial killings in the central African nation, warning they could constitute crimes against humanity.
“Going back to Burundi is like looking for death,” Ndengeye said in Nakivale camp, while carrying her two-year-old. “You can be killed, raped or kidnapped. I can’t go back. I want to stay here with my children.”
“The refugees will go back at will when the situation gets better,” Onek recently told journalists during a press conference in Kampala, adding that he put little faith in Nkurunziza’s insistence that Burundi was safe. “I think Burundi is only playing diplomacy to shape the image of the country.”