TANZANIA: Western Tanganyika bishop warns on treatment of Burundi refugees

February 4, 2008

Tanzanian Anglican Bishop of Western Tanganyika Gerard Mpango has warned that thousands of people who have taken refuge in his country from neighboring Burundi now risk being forced out because of "refugee fatigue" among some of his country's politicians.

"They ration food. They make it so difficult to be there [in Tanzania], so that life is uncomfortable," said Mpango, a member of a January 29-31 delegation of global and regional church groupings to Burundi, a small central African country recovering from more than a decade of conflict.

Mpango said that the Tanzanian politicians were not assisting the refugees to return to Burundi. Instead, they are "pushing them to go away."

Tanzania hosts about 400,000 Burundian and Congolese refugees as part of a policy largely associated with the late President Julius Nyerere. Still, Mpango said many of those in the refugee camps now feared they would be forced to return home.

With some support from United Nations humanitarian agencies, which contribute food, Tanzania meets the cost of hosting the refugees. For their part, the refugees are currently restricted to the camps and denied any opportunity of working for a living.

Mpango said there was "a sense of refugee fatigue even among some politicians" in Tanzania.

"We continue to urge them to be sensitive," he added. "The church is pleading with the government not to make a kind of rushing and pushing to send them [refugees] back to their country quickly before things are well."

The Anglican bishop chairs the peace and justice committee of the Christian Council of Tanzania, and his diocese of Western Tanganyika borders Burundi.

During his visit to Burundi, Mpango urged the country's churches to help those refugees willing to return.

Church leaders in Burundi say they are keen to see the refugees resettled but fear the situation in their country is not yet suitable for them to come back.

Youssef Mahmoud, the U.N. secretary general's special representative for Burundi, said the church and other religious groups could put pressure on the Burundi government to create conditions conducive to the return of the refugees.

"We need to create a safe environment for Burundians to come back," Mahmoud told the church delegation led by former Mozambican president Joaquim Chissano. "One of the fundamental problems of resettlement is lack of trust."

Since independence from Belgium in 1961, Burundi has seen tension between the country's Tutsi minority and Hutu majority. The Tutsi have been portrayed as having had better access to education, and making up a majority of those in the civil service, justice system and security forces.

Burundi's first democratically elected president, a Hutu, was assassinated in October 1993 after only 100 days in office. This triggered widespread violence between Hutus and Tutsis.

An internationally brokered power-sharing agreement between the Tutsi-dominated government and Hutu rebels in 2003 paved the way for a transition process and a new constitution leading to the election of a Hutu-led government in 2005.

The rebel Palipehutu-Forces for National Liberation, the last remaining insurgent group in the central African country, and led by dissident Hutus, signed a peace agreement with the new government in 2006 but pulled out of talks the following year, which halted implementation of the peace process.

The Chissano-led delegation included representatives of the World Council of Churches, the All Africa Conference of Churches and the Fellowship of Christian Councils and Churches in the Great Lakes and the Horn of Africa.