Burundi + 1 more

Impoverished Tanzania still bears heavy refugee burden

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By Pia Casperson in the Mtabila refugee camp
If it were not for the forest of signs proclaiming the presence of several international relief organizations, you would never guess you were entering a refugee camp.

With its neat, thatched clay huts surrounded by green gardens full of banana trees and vegetables, Mtabila camp looks at first glance like any other African village. But it is actually the temporary home of 40,000 refugees from Burundi.

Charles Batungwanayo is one of them. He arrived five years ago with his wife and six children. Since then, three more have been born, the youngest only one month old.

"In my village people were killing each other. The Tutsis were killing my people," Charles, a Hutu from Murongvi in southern Burundi, explains. "We did not dare stay any longer. We had to run away."

His wife Ndayizeye has come out from the hut, her baby asleep on her back. "Tanzania was the only place we could go. In Rwanda there was war. In Congo there was war. There was no other place with peace," she says.

Charles is dressed in western style shirt and trousers whereas his wife is wearing the traditional kanga. But today, her kanga bears a special pattern - the 12 yellow stars in a circle of the European Union, the largest donor to this refugee operation, with 2.3 million dollars a year.

The family can grow fruit and vegetables around the hut, but as refugees they are not allowed to take a job or own land. It means that they are heavily dependent on the food aid they receive from various relief organizations.

Since 1996, the Tanzanian Red Cross, with support from the Federation, has managed the camps. It provides health services, water and sanitation to more than half a million refugees living in 14 different camps.

Tanzania has a proud history of hosting refugees. While most of the eight neigbouring countries have experienced civil war, Tanzania has been a haven of relative peace and political stability.

But at the same time Tanzania is one of the poorest countries in the world, with half of the population living below the poverty line. Now, the presence of some 670,000 refugees has become an immense burden, especially in the Kigoma area, where they make up one third of the population.

Local officials are increasingly concerned worried about the situation, saying that many of the refugees are former soldiers, who have brought weapons with them. Adrian Chubwa, the executive of Nyamyunsi village, says there has been an increase in violence. "That has made people in the villages very scared," he says.

The Tanzanian Red Cross team leader of the Kasulu camps, Julius Kejo, confirms that there has been an increase in crime around the refugee camps, but says there are other reasons for the discontent among the local population.

"Of course such a huge numbers of refugees will have an impact on the local community, because they will have to share the same resources - such as water, firewood and wood for construction," he says. "And the fact that we have to follow international minimum standards for food rations means that the refugees often get more and better food - and, for that matter, better health services - than the local population."

This problem has now partly been solved. The local population has access to the clinics and dispensaries within the refugee camps. And five of the surrounding villages have got new water points. But according to Tanzanian Red Cross secretary general Adam Kimbisa, it is far from adequate.

"The donors must understand the philosophy of the local population. They should not only budget for the refugees, but also for the local community. Otherwise we will get a lot of trouble," Kimbisa says.

"In Europe people are refusing to take refugees, because they think refugees are a big burden. Yes they are, but still we have an obligation to receive them. And even if we are not too well off ourselves, Tanzania has done that so far. But we definitely need support from outside," he adds.

When the International Federation unveiled its annual appeal for 2003, Tanzania was the African country earmarked to receive the biggest single slice - 5.8 million Swiss francs (US$ 4.2 million), much of it destined to help refugees. Even so, the Tanzanian government says they must return to their homelands.

And that is precisely what the Burundian refugees would like to do - even if their camp has the appearance of a well organized town, with shops, hair salons and restaurants. But even though there are peace negotiations going on between the warring parties in Burundi, Charles Batungwanayo remains sceptical:

"If I go back they will kill me," he says. "The war has not yet come to an end. What made me run is still there. To go back would be like committing suicide."

At the edge of the camp, dozens of women are carrying red bricks on top of their heads, while others carry long poles. A new church is being built - just one of the signs that the refugees themselves realize that they be staying in the camp for a few more years yet.