In a meeting of minds that was not completely unexpected, Burundi and Tanzania on August 27 agreed to the repatriation of Burundian refugees starting October. Yet, predictably, the decision set off alarm bells, first within the Burundian refugee community, and rights activists who fear that the agreement could provide cover to forcible removals.
A section of the Burundian refugee community in Tanzania fears that conditions on the ground in Burundi, which they fled amid politically inspired violence in 2015, are not conducive for a safe return, while Bujumbura and Dar think otherwise. The gap in perception between the refugees and the governments is partly attributable to the manner in which the decision to repatriate them was arrived at. It is a top-down decision in which the potential beneficiaries or victims were minimally involved, if at all.
Ordinarily, the return of refugees to their country of origin should not be contentious. The host is relieved of the burden of catering for extra mouths while repatriation allows the refugees to return to a more sedentary existence, with an opportunity to participate in the development of their country. But, more often than not, it is a delicate process that requires patience and persuasion.
Under ideal circumstances, repatriation should be initiated by the victims of displacement in the first place. It is rare that decisions to return home are informed by official sources who often lack credibility and are thus mistrusted. In most cases, voluntary decisions to return are the result of information from informal networks of traders, frequent travellers and even scouts who sneak across borders to assess the conditions in the original place of domicile.
In this case, both the Burundi and Tanzania authorities cannot be trusted by refugees because of perceived vested interests. Unlike societies that, even with the current fatigue, are still more open to offering displaced people permanent residence, in Africa the options are often limited to exile or an indefinite refugee status. Because the Burundians probably feel unwelcome in Tanzania, they cannot trust what the government tells them. On the other hand, desperate to convey a sense of normalcy, Burundi will be too eager to have its citizens repatriated at any cost.
The other complication about repatriation as a solution is that it does not always apply itself to the unique needs of individual refugees. While indeed it might be safe for a majority to return, there will be those isolated cases for whom a return might not be safe. That is why repatriation should be a process rather than event. Burundi and Tanzania need to engage with UNHCR to assess individual cases and avoid a blanket repatriation.
Being a refugee is not voluntary; it is a status into which people are forced by circumstance. It involves the loss of everything one has worked for up until that point. Equally, repatriation involves a degree of displacement from an environment where some aspects of life were predictable.
To blunt the trauma of repatriation, Burundi, Tanzania and their partners need to be seen to be taking measures that ensure those targeted for the exercise return to an environment that is stable, safe and free of fear.