The decision was announced in a joint communiqué, issued on Wednesday after a meeting of the Tripartite Commission on the Voluntary Repatriation of Burundian Refugees. The commission is made up of representatives the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and the governments of Tanzania and Burundi.
According to the communiqué, the commission recommended that the Tanzanian government carry out a census of all Burundian refugees living outside the camps. "Once identified, it is recommended that UNHCR assistance be sought for voluntary repatriation within the framework of the ongoing repatriation operation," it reads.
The commission had adopted the "general concept of the consolidated plan" for the repatriation of the "old Burundi caseload" - the term used to describe the long-term refugees - and a plan as well as a budget would be finalised within the first two weeks of March, the communique added.
UNHCR estimates there are 170,000 Burundians who fled their country in the 1970s and have been living in settlements in Tanzania ever since. Added to these are the Burundians living in Tanzanian villages near the border and in refugee camps and, according to Tanzanian government estimates, these number at least 300,000.
"There are Burundians that have been in Tanzania for over 30 years, but they are still refugees," John Chiligati, Tanzania's deputy minister for home affairs, told IRIN. "They have been fearing the situation at home, but we are hoping that the situation in Burundi will improve and they can be convinced to go back."
He said while both "the old Burundi caseload" and those living in Tanzanian villages were producing food for themselves, the government hoped that once the refugees from the camps had been repatriated, these two groups would follow.
Citing considerable improvements in the security situation in Burundi's southeastern provinces of Makamba, Rutana and Bururi, the commission also agreed to activate three more exit/entry points to help facilitate repatriation. The commission also said a sensitisation campaign in the camps would be undertaken to encourage the refugees to go home.
The respective delegations to the commission were led by Tanzanian Minister of Home Affairs Omar Mapuri, the Burundi minister of reintegration and resettlement of displaced persons and returnees, Francoise Ngendahayo, and the UNHCR resident representative, Chrysanthus Ache.
UNHCR has said the implementation of the commission's decisions would depend on the outcome of the planned transition of presidential power in Burundi on 1 May. "We will have to wait and see what the situation is like on the ground," Ivana Unluova, UNCHR's spokeswoman in Tanzania, said. "But after the census, and once the numbers are known, we will have to study how and when we will be involved in this repatriation."
She said that, with the exception of a few Bantu Somalis who had been allowed to remain in Tanga because of their ancestral links with Tanzania, the government did not condone the local integration of refugees.
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