Over the past few years, international attention has focused on the brutalities experienced by Syrians displaced by war and terrorism, Yemeni children trapped and starving in their country, and Rohingya refugees forced from their homes in Myanmar.
But unbeknownst to much of the world, conflict and human rights abuses have forced nearly a half million people to flee Burundi and seek safety in countries throughout central Africa.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees calls it the world’s “forgotten” refugee crisis.
Since 2015, more than 400,000 Burundians have fled their homes and settled in Tanzania, Rwanda, and other nearby countries, the UNHCR reports. This year, according to the organization, even more Burundians are set to leave amid domestic turmoil.
“The human rights situation inside Burundi remains worrying,” said UNHCR Regional Coordinator Catherine Wiesner in a statement. “Unless the political tensions are truly restively and socio-economic conditions improve, the outflow of Burundian refugees – mostly to neighbouring countries – is expected to continue in 2018.”
Protests erupted in Burundi in the summer of 2015 after President Pierre Nkurunziza won a third term in office, even though the Burundian constitution prohibits presidents from serving more than two five-year terms. Tension grew in the ensuing months and culminated in the murder of at least 90 political opponents during a spree of violence by state security forces in December 2015. The violence and persecution compelled hundreds of thousands of people to flee the country.
The current conflict continues nearly thirteen years after the Burundian Civil War between the Tutsi and Hutu ethnic groups ended with the adoption of the Arusha Agreement. In neighboring Rwanda, the Hutus constitute the majority and systematically killed an estimated 800,000 Tutsis in the 1994 genocide. The roles were reversed in Burundi where the majority Tutsis wielded their power to oppress the Hutus — although the conflicts are far more complicated than mere ethnic rivalry.
And while the mass violence ended with the Arusha Agreement, tensions simmered and violence continued in both countries. Since 2010, Nkurunziza and the Burundian government have taken various steps to erode democracy such as limiting press freedom and using force to prohibit public assembly.
The Council on Foreign Relations reports that widespread ethnic violence has yet to occur as part of the current conflict, but the organization warns that continued tension could reignite the ethnic attacks that happened during the civil war.
Extreme poverty in Burundi further complicates the ongoing humanitarian crisis. In 2016, the World Bank ranked Burundi as the poorest country in the world.
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For several years, Save the Children has worked to ensure Burundian children in refugee camps stay safe and healthy with access to education.
Laura Cardinal, Save the Children’s Senior Director of Humanitarian Response, recently spoke with Global Citizen about the ongoing crisis in Burundi.
GC: Why don't more people know about the crisis in Burundi?
Cardinal: Media plays at least some role — the presence of other “humanitarian catastrophes” in the world, such as Rohingya, Yemen and Syria, gain more attention from the media, international aid sector, and public than Burundi.
Burundian refugees are also spread out over several neighboring countries, so the numbers of people reported at the refugee camps and the burden on one country may seem less urgent, though that is not wholly accurate.
Who are the people most affected by violence and displacement?
Children are the most affected by the displacement and are most vulnerable. More than 50% of the refugee population are children and we have major protection concerns, especially for the 3,500 unaccompanied and separated children. In general, normal Burundians were affected by the violence that erupted.
Those who fled in fear for their lives now find themselves struggling to provide the basics for their children in overcrowded, under-resourced camps as there is severe underfunding of this forgotten crisis. The complex environment of political violence, economic decline, extreme food insecurity, and a malaria epidemic means the situation remains fragile and not conducive for the return of refugees.
How are refugees and displaced people received in the countries that take them in?
Both Tanzania and Rwanda have been welcoming to Burundian refugees. In both countries, Burundian refugees are provided with basic necessities such as shelter, food, water, sanitation, hygiene, health and education. However, chronic underfunding means that resources are insufficient to provide acceptable assistance levels and standards, despite efforts of governments and the humanitarian communities.
This has especially affected children. For example, in Tanzania a 40% reduction in food rations has placed a serious burden on family resources.
Children have resorted to negative coping mechanisms. Boys are engaging in child labor in host community farms, which has led to cases of child-trafficking. We are seeing girls getting married early in order to reduce the burden on their family.
Though welcoming to refugees, the Tanzania Refugee Law dictates that refugees must [remain] in refugee camps, limiting their access to livelihood opportunities, free movement, and integration into the host community. Rwanda has taken a more inclusive approach and has committed to integrate refugees into the government health insurance, education, and documentation services.
What work does Save the Children do for the refugees?
Save the Children works with Burundian refugees in both Rwanda and Tanzania. In Tanzania, we provide education and child protection services. We operate six schools and eight Child Friendly Spaces, which also include Early Care and Childhood Development. In Rwanda, Save the Children’s response provides community services, child protection, health and nutrition, and education for out-of-school children.
What will it take to end this crisis?
The crisis can only be resolved through political will and dialogue [between] the political parties in Burundi to restore peace, address human rights violations and restore socio-economic conditions. The international community needs to increase pressure on both sides to come to common terms for the best interest and stability of the country.