Nairobi — Tens of thousands of refugees returning to Burundi are now at risk of a health disaster, as cases of cholera increase in their homeland.
Burundi has been tackling a deadly cholera outbreak for two months, and as hundreds of refugees from Tanzania's Mtabila camp cross the border each day, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) fears that the large population movement may make things worse.
"So many people on the move significantly increases the risk of cholera and other diseases spreading to - and devastating - new communities," says Dr. Ben Adeiza, Africa Zone Health and Care Coordinator for the IFRC. "This has the potential of becoming a very serious issue."
The government of Tanzania announced the closure of the Mtabila refugee camp earlier this year. It was home to many Burundians who fled the country decades ago to escape a civil war.
The 38,000 refugees due to be repatriated may be at an increased risk of contracting the diarrheal disease as many do not have homes to return to, and most will have poor access to water and sanitation facilities.
"The combination of hundreds of people moving from Tanzania to Burundi each day, and a deadly cholera outbreak, is extremely worrying," says Vénérand Nzigamasabo, Head of Disaster Management for the Burundi Red Cross Society.
"Returning refugees are particularly vulnerable, as many will not be able to access the water and sanitation facilities they need. And for some communities in Burundi, the arrival of thousands of people will put a huge strain on local health resources."
Burundi's government declared a cholera outbreak and a health disaster in October. The disease has infected hundreds of people, and has killed at least one person. The number of people affected has been especially high in those areas that are receiving returnees, particularly Nyanza-Lac and Makamba districts.
More than 70 volunteers and staff from the Burundi Red Cross Society are working to tackle the outbreak and support the refugees, by spreading vital hygiene messages, disinfecting cholera treatment centres and distributing water. Two sanitation experts have also been sent to help.
To date, the organization has distributed 54,730 water purification tablets, 966 jerry cans, 1,920 soap tablets, and 15 knapsack sprayers to people affected by the outbreak.
In Tanzania, the National Society has also been assisting refugees through the provision of health nutrition initiatives, and water and sanitation.
Volunteers have been arranging medical screenings for the refugees prior to their departure, constructed 24 emergency shelters in the Mtabila camp, and distributed more than 30,000 bottles of water, while providing first aid to thousands of departing refugees.
In November, the IFRC launched a preliminary emergency appeal for 611,896 Swiss francs (658,589 US dollars) to support the Burundi Red Cross Society as it helps thousands resettle in a country many of them don't know.
The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) is the world's largest volunteer-based humanitarian network, reaching 150 million people each year through its 187 member National Societies.
Together, the IFRC acts before, during and after disasters and health emergencies to meet the needs and improve the lives of vulnerable people. It does so with impartiality as to nationality, race, gender, religious beliefs, class and political opinions. For more information, please visit www.ifrc.org. You can also connect with us on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Flickr.