The 2021 Joint Refugee Return and Reintegration Plan is an integrated inter-agency response plan, with both humanitarian and development-oriented components, designed to support the safe and dignified return home of Burundian refugees in the sub region and beyond, and to promote their resilience and sustainable reintegration. Sustainability of the refugee returns to Burundi is indispensable for national and regional security and for achieving progressive development in Burundi and the region.
Following the election of President Ndayishimiye in June 2020 and his call for Burundians living in exile to return, an increase in interest in voluntary return has been observed in various countries hosting Burundian refugees. Indeed, the relative stability that has prevailed following the elections and the peaceful political transition has provided an opportunity to pursue durable solutions for thousands of Burundian refugees in neighbouring countries and others further afield.
However, the socio-economic and political situation in Burundi continues to adversely impact the lives of Burundians. According to the Human Development Report 2020, Burundi ranks 185 out of 189 in the Human Development Index (HDI). The World Bank estimates that 75 per cent of the population lives below the poverty threshold, with youth unemployment standing at 65 per cent according to the African Development Bank. Burundi has one of the highest stunting rates in the world, estimated at 54 per cent (JANSFA 2019) and rural children are more at risk of being stunted than their urban counterparts. The refugee returnees are among the most vulnerable segments of the population and the areas they are returning to in substantial numbers, such as Makamba, Kirundo and Ruyigi, are among the poorest and chronically food and nutrition insecure provinces of Burundi. These provinces are also affected by the socio-economic impact of COVID19. Against this backdrop, the socio-economic re-integration of up to 400,000 Burundian refugees expected to return over the next few years cannot be sustained without significant development assistance.
Besides socio-economic challenges, Burundi faces the additional complications brought about by the COVID19 pandemic. On 16 March 2020, Burundi closed its borders and the Melchior Ndadaye International Airport to prevent the spread of the virus, a measure that remained in place till 10 November 2020, when the airport was re-opened to commercial flights. Amidst the pandemic, the voluntary repatriation (VolRep) process continued uninterrupted until mid- May 2020, when it was suspended once again, in connection with the start of the electoral period. UNHCR and its partners took advantage of this pause to establish adequate COVID19 prevention measures, control infrastructure and testing procedures for returnees upon arrival in Burundi. The VolRep activities resumed on 2 July from Tanzania, followed by Rwanda and DRC, and Uganda towards the end of the year, with considerable increases in monthly returns, averaging 7,000 individuals/month in September and November 2020.
As serious socio-economic challenges prevail in return areas, compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, it is imperative that humanitarian and development stakeholders at provincial and communal levels work jointly to support a sustainable return and reintegration process. In addition to the right to return in safety and dignity, the returnees are entitled to the same rights as well as equal access to civil documentation, services, productive assets and opportunities as other citizens. Recognizing the importance of promoting durable reintegration, in 2017, Burundi published its National Strategy for the socio-economic reintegration of victims affected by forced displacement 2017-2021 (Stratégie Nationale de Reintegration socio-économique des personnes sinistrées au Burundi) that articulates the three government priorities for reintegration, namely 1) enable displaced people to have access to land and shelters upon return to the chosen areas of residency; 2) provide economic opportunities with support to the local markets and job creation; and 3) allow full social cohesion with participation in community and social lives.
The international community is embracing a comprehensive approach to support Burundi’s voluntary repatriation and reintegration process and the leveraging of synergies across the humanitarian-developmentnexus. The 2021 JRRRP endeavours to achieve these synergies through a linkage between humanitarian and resilience/development interventions. Robust support by donors and other stakeholders is crucial to ensure the sustainable reintegration of refugee returnees who have already returned, and those who are expected to return in the coming year(s).