Inadequate funding continues to hamper efforts by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to have Burundians in refugee camps sent back home, says the agency's regional co-ordinator for Burundi, Catherine Weisner.
As a result, UNHCR has toned down calls pushing for more refugees to be repatriated and instead is working with the Burundian and Tanzanian governments to assist those who are willing to be repatriated voluntarily.
“The major constraint we are facing is the lack of adequate funding, which leads to a significant backlog of refugees in Tanzania who have registered to return,” said Ms Weisner.
“We continue to engage with the government of Tanzania at high levels, working within the framework of tripartite agreement with the governments of Tanzania and Burundi to reaffirm and ensure any refugee returns are voluntary," she added.
According to UNHCR, since last year the agency assisted more than 44,000 refugees to voluntarily repatriate to Burundi, with the vast majority coming from Tanzania. Others came from Kenya, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda.
Tanzania hosts more than 250,000 refugees from Burundi, most of whom fled following political upheaval there in 2015.
According to the Burundian government more than 100,000 refugees from Tanzania, the DRC and Rwanda have been repatriated since 2016.
Bujumbura denied reports that some refugees were intimidated and forced to return to their home country.
“Those allegations are not true because there were some individuals who aren’t happy about the refugee repatriation exercise due to their self-interest,” Burundi Home Affairs Assistant Minister Therence Ntahiraja told The EastAfrican.
Mr Ntahiraja said that people were surprised to see many refugees being repatriated as it is a sign that Burundi is now peaceful.
Returnees cite improved overall security in the country, desire to reoccupy farmland and to reunify with family. Some also say that they feel the conditions at home, however challenging, will be better than what they are experiencing as refugees.
A recent report by a Burundian civil society organisation indicated that refugees were prohibited from leaving their camps to go to nearby markets to trade.
However, about 1,000 refugees continue to arrive in neighbouring countries each month, citing insecurity, harassment, and fear.
During a visit to Tanzania last month, UNHCR Assistant High Commissioner for Protection Volker Türk said that refugees needed to have a choice, and that the decision to return should be voluntary.
“UNHCR is not promoting returns to Burundi at this stage, but we continue to work with the governments of Burundi and host countries, including Tanzania, to assist those who feel now is the time to return home,” he added.