As of May 2, a total of 5,546 Burundian refugees had returned through assisted repatriation operations. An additional 8,861 have returned spontaneously since January.
"The people who are now returning say they are coming back for good," said Bernard Ntwari, UNHCR's spokesman in the Burundian capital of Bujumbura. "They say there is no more hesitation, they've come to stay. Their determination is so strong that even the sick persons and other vulnerable persons don't miss the convoy. They are accommodated in a bus whereas other returnees travel in trucks."
Ntwari added that a woman gave birth in the Songore transit centre in Burundi's Muyinga province last week, and was immediately taken to Muyinga hospital for appropriate care.
UNHCR maintains that it is not encouraging returns to the country, and is only partially assisting those who wish to go home. Increasing numbers are signing up for assisted repatriation, the majority of whom would like to go back to the southern provinces of Ruyigi and Makamba, where insecurity is still rife. As such, the UN refugee agency is sticking to its policy of sending convoys only to Muyinga province in northern Burundi for the time being.
Every Tuesday and Thursday, UNHCR convoys take an average of 500 returnees from the town of Ngara in north-west Tanzania to the Kobero border crossing, some 65 km away. Returnees disembark here and board other trucks on the Burundi side of the border. From Kobero, they are driven to the Songore transit centre in Muyinga province, nearly 50 km away. Those returning to villages close to the transit centre are taken home immediately. Those repatriating to outlying areas of the province spend a night at the transit facility before they are transported to their communes the following day.
With the onset of the heavy rains throughout the region, UNHCR is concerned about road conditions, particularly a 20-km stretch between Kitali Hills camp, north of Ngara, and the assembly point in Ngara town. This stretch of road could be in poor condition due to the rains. The UN refugee agency met partners in Ngara last week to discuss possible road repairs and ensure a safe journey for the returnees.
There are some 750,000 Burundian refugees in Africa, many of whom fled their country after ethnic violence escalated into civil war in 1993. Most of them are hosted in Tanzania.