London — Based on a new report entitled "Returning to Stability: refugee returns in the Great Lakes region."
Forcing Burundian refugees in Tanzania to leave the country is not only problematic legally, it could also sow the seeds for renewed conflict and displacement in Burundi.
At the end of August, the Burundian and Tanzanian governments jointly announced that the 183,000 Burundian refugees would be repatriated. While such a large-scale operation has yet to materialise, the threat remains.
The Tanzanian government is tightening the screws, pressuring the refugees to register for return. Last week, President John Magufuli told them once more to "go back home". With all markets in the three main camps closed and freedom of movement restricted, this process is becoming voluntary in name only.
The prospect of forced returns has worrying legal and humanitarian implications. But it also increases the possibility of friction in Burundi between the returnees, their neighbours who did not flee the political crisis in 2015 triggered by President Pierre Nkurunziza's bid for a third term, and the local authorities who have often been suspicious of returning refugees.
Our research indicates that real voluntary returns hold the best chance of allowing people to regain their place in society, as they are based on people's own free and informed decisions. It also often comes with some limited form of assistance and can facilitate information exchanges between authorities and humanitarian actors on both sides of the border about those who want to return and those who want to remain.
Voluntary returns are the best option.
That's one of the key takeaways of what we learned over the last year when talking to returnees in Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The homecoming of people who lived in exile, sometimes for decades, is not always smooth, and has a profound impact on conflict dynamics in the areas of return.
The absence of aid or cross-border coordination can complicate social cohesion, as our research in Haut-Uélé province in northeastern DRC showed.
Former refugees who were forced to return to this part of the country because of violent conflict around their refugee camp in South Sudan told us that the insufficient assistance they received created tensions with local authorities and humanitarian agencies. They felt abandoned and said it made it difficult to pick up their lives after years in exile.
Other communities in South Kivu province, further south, said that armed groups in DRC used the absence of accurate information about the number of refugees in Rwanda to bolster their local support. Their fear-mongering about a possible mass return of refugees to DRC, alleging they would grab people's land, fuelled long-standing hostility against those who remained in exile, complicating their return.
Friction around assistance
A formal repatriation framework is no guarantee refugees can make a free, informed choice about whether to return or stay in exile.
It is usually the role of the UN's refugee agency, UNHCR, to check. But host and receiving countries do not always give the agency sufficient space to do so, as the Burundi-Tanzania situation clearly illustrates.
To avoid being thrown out of the country and lose all the leverage it has, UNHCR has limited itself largely to providing material assistance to Burundian returnees, rather than safeguarding the voluntary nature of returns.
Aid to returnees can become a source of discord, too.
Some Burundian returnees told us, for example, how they faced hostility because the communities they were settling back into, despite being equally vulnerable, did not receive the same level of assistance. We also observed such frictions between different communities in DRC.
Some Burundian returnees also said local authorities asked for bribes in return for assistance, or simply diverted resources meant for returnees to members of the ruling party. Because returnees were often accused of being opposition supporters or "traitors", they were often regarded with suspicion and could not openly voice their complaints.
Despite such local practices of exclusion, Burundi has used refugee returns to try to improve the country's image. During his speech at the UN General Assembly, the Burundian minister of foreign affairs stated that the "massive voluntary return is an evident manifestation of the return of peace, calm, confidence, and stability".
Tellingly, only a few of the returnees we spoke to described their decision as based on a regained confidence in the situation in their country. The majority felt pushed to return by the difficulty of life in exile rather than by an end to the factors that motivated them to seek refuge in the first place.
The importance of the political situation
Burundian refugees arriving home - roughly 75,000 have done so since 2017 - say political conditions are largely the same as those that forced them to flee in 2015, following an upsurge in political violence that left hundreds dead.
The ruling CNDD-FDD party still controls all aspects of political and public life in Burundi and the economic situation remains challenging. Returnees are particularly vulnerable to political and economic instability. With the 2020 elections approaching, the current conditions could worsen for returning refugees.
The picture is different in DRC, the other country where we did our research. Here, as a classic "fragile state", the government is largely absent, and developments at the national level only have a limited impact on what happens in return zones.
That provides more leeway for humanitarian actors and returnees themselves to influence the return process. But that at times puts them on a collision course with local authorities, who can feel challenged by the resources and influence of these competing actors.
In Burundi, the state does not leave such space to international actors or returnee representatives.
No simple humanitarian operation
Our research clearly shows that it is important to think of return movements not just as humanitarian operations, but as complex political processes with a complex history and a profound impact on society.
It is therefore important to approach such movements accordingly and invest in solid analysis to understand how return, and the aid flows associated with it, can affect local political dynamics and social cohesion.
Outside actors should replace politically blind hand-outs with inclusive, long-term support to entire communities in return zones, and should avoid their resources benefitting predatory elites rather than returnee populations.
The risks of ignoring such dynamics is yet another argument for speaking out now about the pressure on Burundian refugees in Tanzania. Refugee returns must be thought out properly, and they must be voluntary.