In a major breakthrough for Burundians stuck in limbo in Tanzanian refugee camps for many years, the United States has agreed to interview 13,000 of them under a United Nations refugee agency resettlement programme, and the agency said today that it expects most of them to be accepted.
"The group resettlement will not only provide durable solutions for this particular group, it will contribute to resolving one of the most protracted refugee situations in the world," said Steven Corliss, acting representative of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Dar es Salaam.
Processing gets under way at the end of this month and interviews will be conducted in the camps of Kasulu, Kibondo and Ngara. Departures for North America are expected to start next year and the whole process is likely to last two years because of the large numbers involved, UNHCR said.
The offer is being made to refugees and their descendants who fled Burundi in 1972 to escape widespread massacres largely perpetrated by the ethnic Tutsi-dominated government against members of the Hutu majority. Up to 250,000 people were killed, while an estimated 150,000 people fled to neighbouring Rwanda, Uganda, Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Mr. Corliss said the UNHCR had recommended the Burundians for resettlement as part of efforts to find a durable solution for them and a State Department deputy spokesman told reporters in Washington on Wednesday that the refugees would be eligible to apply for US citizenship.
The Burundians who fled in 1972 and ended up in Tanzania were seen as having fewer realistic prospects for a return and sustainable reintegration in Burundi than those who fled a second wave of violence during the mid-1990s. The 1972 exiles fled from their first country of asylum to Tanzania as fresh violence swept the Great Lakes region in the 1990s.
Resettlement is completely voluntary. Following identification of the group, UNHCR sought the consent of the refugees before sharing their personal details with the United States. UNHCR, with the help of partners in the programme, is currently preparing the 1972 exiles for life in a strange new country.
At the same time, UNHCR continues to support the voluntary repatriation of Burundian refugees from Tanzania. Since 2002, more than 230,000 Burundian refugees have returned home on their own or with the agency's assistance. There are still more than 370,000 Burundian refugees in Tanzania.