Week Three: Burundi

In partnership with the ‘War, Conflict and Global Migration Think Tank,’ Global Research Network


Dr. Jasmin Lilian Diab, Institute for Migration Studies, Lebanese American University

Dr. Obasesam Okoi, ‘War, Conflict and Global Migration Think Tank,’ Global Research Network

John Sunday Ojo, ‘War, Conflict and Global Migration Think Tank,’ Global Research Network

Esther Brito, ‘War, Conflict and Global Migration Think Tank,’ Global Research Network


Overview of the Conflict

Burundi’s contemporary conflict can be understood in the context of colonial and post-colonial historical artefacts and migration patterns. In the pre-1300s era, the Hutu had settled in the country. Following the arrival of the Hutu ethnic group, the Tutsi ethnic group migrated to the country in the 1400s. In the 1500s, the Burundian kingdom emerged. The kingdoms of Urundi and Ruanda (Rwanda) were put under the occupation of Germany in the 1890s. In 1923, under the League of Nations, Belgian colonialists were mandated to administer Ruanda and Urundi. Due to ethnic conflict in Ruanda in 1959, Urundi witnessed an influx of many Tutsis that were forced to flee their ancestral home. Between 1959 and 1961, the clamour for independence was championed by the UPRONA party led by Prince Louis Rwagasore, and he emerged as the Prime Minister of Ruanda-Urundi. However, following his emergence as prime minister, he was assassinated.

In 1962, Urundi seceded and emerged as an independent kingdom of Burundi under the leadership of King Mwambutsa IV. Prior to the independence of Burundi in 1962, the country had been entangled in ethnic tension between the Hutu dominant ethnic group and the Tutsi minority. As a result of the ethnic conflict, many Hutus fled to Rwanda. Following the emergence of Hutus as a majority in parliamentary elections, King Mwambutsa repudiated the appointment of a Hutu as prime minister. In 1966, Michel Micombero called for the abolition of the monarchical system and installed himself as President. Between 1972 and 1988, more than 120,000 Hutus were massacred by the state security forces because of a Hutu uprising in the southern region. The period also witnessed the overthrow of President Micombero by a military coup orchestrated by Jean-Baptiste Bagaza in 1976. In 1981, a new constitution was enacted, which provided a legal basis for a one-party state under the control of the UPRONA party. In September 1987, President Bagaza was overthrown by a Pierre Buyoya-led coup. Following the emergence of Bagaza in 1988, many Tutsis were massacred, while some fled to Rwanda for safety reasons.

In 1992, a new constitution provided an enabling environment for a multi-party system, achieved through a referendum. Moreover, the 1993 election symbolized the emergence of Melchior Ndadaye, who served as the leader of the Front for Democracy in Burundi (FRODEBU), which brought an end to the authoritarian government. This political administration is considered a pro-Hutu government. However, due to unending ethnic tension between the Tutsis and Hutus, President Ndadaye was assassinated by Tutsi soldiers. As a revenge tactic, some members of the FRODEBU party orchestrated the massacre of Tutsis, which triggered reprisal attacks by the army.

In 1994, the parliament approved the appointment of Cyprien Ntaryamira, a Hutu. An armed group shot down an aircraft conveying President Ntaryamira and the Rwandan President to Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. The plane crash led to the deaths of the two presidents. Such an event triggered the Rwanda genocide carried out by Hutu militia that led to the deaths of more than 800,000 people, mostly Tutsis. In October 1994, the Speaker of Parliament, Sylvestre Ntibantunganya, was appointed as the President of Burundi. In 1995, the killings of Hutu refugees in Bujumbura fueled another ethnic conflict between the two groups. In 1996, Buyoya returned to the government through a coup. The aftermath of the coup witnessed a period of negotiation talk initiated by Buyoya with the FRODEBU-majority parliament. The initiative aimed to facilitate peace talks with Hutu rebels and create a transitional government in Burundi. In 1998, the former Tanzanian President, Julius Nyerere, led a mediating task in Arusha. The death of Nyerere in 1999 necessitated the appointment of Nelson Mandela, the former President of South Africa, as a new mediator.

The agreement emanated from Arusha mediation provided an opportunity for multi-party democracy. The event also highlighted the formation of a new multi-ethnic Burundi army that accommodates rebel groups and existing government security forces. In 2003, African Union (AU) peacekeeping forces were mobilized to Burundi to disarm, demobilize, and reintegrate rebel groups and security forces. The mission also facilitated the safe return of refugees. In 2004, the United Nations took over from the African Union to sustain peacekeeping in the country. In 2007, the UN peacekeeping mission was terminated and redirected its primary task to reconstructing Burundi. Between 2009 and 2015, the country experienced several attempts to introduce constitutional and political reforms. For instance, in March 2014, the parliament obstructed the government’s constitutional reform plan, which was considered a threat to the balance of power between the ethnic groups in Burundi.

While Burundi’s withdrawal from the International Criminal Court (ICC) in November 2017 appears as a mechanism to avoid investigation into the unjust massacre of civilians, nevertheless, the ICC ratified a full investigation into the crime against humanity that led to the killings of 1200 civilians since 2015 political upheaval. Following the death of President Pierre Nkurunziza, Evariste Ndayishimiye, the former Hutu rebel leader, took over power in June 2020. The contemporary conflict in Burundi remains one fuelled by ethnic tensions between the majority and minority ethnic groups. The conflict revolves around the struggle for political power between two different ethnic entities (Tutsi and Hutu). Ethnopolitics remains at the center of the conflict in Burundi.

Displacement in Numbers

The humanitarian crisis in Burundi initially unfolded with heartbreaking tragedies involving the displacement of thousands of Burundians who were forced to flee their homes to escape political unrest arising from military brutality and state-sanctioned human rights violations. A UNHCR report published in September 2016 indicated that the population of Burundians fleeing violence, threats, torture, and extrajudicial killings exceeded 300,000. Forced displacement in Burundi created refugee conditions in East Africa that severely overstretched the capacity of host countries as indicated in the UNHCR report. Inside the country, over 61,000 people have been displaced due to violence and natural disasters and 4.6 million people are food insecure. Sixty percent (60%) of all refugees are children and youths under the age of 18, among them a high percentage of unaccompanied minors.

The vulnerabilities of the Burundian population have increased exponentially since 2021, due largely to the effects of climate shocks arising from flooding in Lake Tangayika. A report by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) shows that 82% of all displacements in Burundi in 2021 were caused by flooding. The UNOCHA report is consistent with evidence from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) Displacement Tracking Matrix which shows that 84% of displacements that occurred in 2021 were caused by natural disasters while 16% were attributed to other causes. Burundi thus presents a fascinating case in which internal displacement arising from the effects of natural disasters, such as floods, storms, and landslides, now served as another factor to consider alongside conflict-induced displacement – essentially prompting a reexamination of the nature of forced displacement in Burundi.

UNOCHA classified the effects of natural disasters on internal displacement occurring in the most affected provinces in Burundi into different levels of severity, with provinces such as Ruyigi, Rumonge, and Makamba ranking as level 5, while Karusi, Bujumbura, Cankuzo, Rutana and Kirundo ranks as level 4, and Bubanza, Cibitoke and Muyinga ranking as level 3. These provinces have been identified as the priority areas for intervention in Burundi. The multi-causal dynamics of internal displacement in Burundi have significant socioeconomic implications, particularly for families who previously had experienced displacement due to conflict and now live in poverty. Given the rising fertility rate in Burundi (one of the highest in the world), with families living in tents and struggling for food, the current humanitarian crisis imposes a burden on the nation, particularly as displacement camps are overrun with children. Under these conditions, many children are integrated into the worst forms of child labor in order to support their families. A press release by Save the Children suggests that while Burundi is bearing the brunt of global climate change, with children being the most affected, the world has turned a blind eye to the humanitarian challenge unfolding in this East African nation.

Realities in Host Countries

More than 300,000 Burundians have fled to Tanzania, Rwanda, DRC, and Uganda, where existing and new camps have been organised. In Tanzania, the main recipient country, more than 150,000 Burundian refugees live in camps in a situation described by international humanitarian actors as volatile, uncertain and challenging. The sudden influx has led to overcrowding and overstretched facilities. Nyarugusu camp in Tanzania, which already hosted 64,000 refugees from DR Congo, was expanded to accommodate the new refugees from Burundi and doubled in size before reaching its limit. Other settlements at Nduta and Mtendeli continue to take in refugees, but there is a scarcity of shelters, classrooms and water. Overcrowding poses protection and health concerns for vulnerable refugees in a region where water-related diseases are common.

The Tanzanian government continues to press refugees to return to Burundi. It also has a history of forced returns and of revoking prima facie status since 2017, which had recognized refugee status based simply on nationality for Burundian refugees. Since 2018, many Burundian asylum seekers have encountered obstacles to registration. According to the United Nations, Burundi refugees living in Tanzania continue to live in fear. Burundian refugees have confirmed being taken by Tanzanian police and subjected to enforced disappearance and torture, before being forced to return home or to sign up for “voluntary return.” Some were also reportedly interrogated for their supposed affiliation with armed groups, or about their activities in the camps, and even asked for money in order to be released. According to Human Rights Watch, Tanzanian authorities have “gravely abused” at least eighteen Burundian refugees and asylum seekers since late 2019. The whereabouts of several who were forcibly disappeared remain unknown, and additional Burundians may have suffered similar abuse.

UNHCR has expressed its deep concern over reports of disappearances of refugees in Tanzania and had repeatedly expressed these concerns with the Tanzanian authorities both orally and in writing, requesting a full investigation. In Burundi, serious human rights violations against real or perceived opposition supporters, including returning refugees, continues to place them at heightened risk. A UN Human Rights Council-mandated Commission of Inquiry reported that serious human rights violations have persisted in Burundi since 2019. A Human Rights Watch report from 2019 found that the fear of violence, arbitrary arrest, and deportation was driving many Burundian refugees and asylum seekers in Tanzania out of the country. Tanzanian officials specifically targeted parts of the Burundian refugee population whose insecure legal status and lack of access to aid made them particularly vulnerable to coerced return to Burundi. Tanzanian authorities continue to make it difficult for UNHCR to adequately verify whether or not the decisions of hundreds of refugees to return to Burundi is voluntary. UNHCR and Human Rights Watch have insisted that Tanzania’s actions are in direct violation of the non-refoulement principle enshrined in the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1969 African Refugee Convention.

International Political, Legal and Humanitarian Efforts

In 2022 alone, estimates suggest around 1.8 million people in Burundi are in need of humanitarian assistance. Despite this, the Burundian refugee crisis has the lowest funding comparatively of any similar situation globally. The UNHCR’s 2019-2020 Burundi Regional Refugee Response Plan called for USD 296 million in 2019 to address the developing situation in Burundi, after only receiving 33% of the requested USD 391 million in 2018. As of 2022, UNICEF stated it requires USD 22.3 million of funding to effectively provide assistance to children and women across Burundi. Ultimately, humanitarian aid remains both needed and lacking.

In response, the United States has recently committed USD 400 million over five years to aid in 2022. Along these lines, the European Union’s most recent funding plan, set until 2024, has earmarked 55 million euros for inclusive growth, 104 million euros aimed toward human development and core services, 25 million euros to aid the development of good governance and rule of law mechanisms, and lastly 7 million euros to support civil society groups. These new commitments have signified the renewal of direct aid to Burundian authorities. In 2016, the EU, which was the country’s biggest donor at the time, suspended direct aid due to the government’s human rights abuses, with the US imposing sanctions as well. The decision to renew funding has been heavily criticized by NGOs and human rights groups, which have stated that abuses remain rampant.

While the security situation in Burundi remains dire, international attention and scrutiny seem to be dwindling. In 2020, the UN Security Council noted an improved security situation in the country after new elections were held and there was a change in Burundi’s presidency. Both the African Union’s Human Rights Observers and Military Experts Missi, as well as the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy destined to Burundi have ceased their operations in the country in 2021. Additionally, the UN Human Rights Council failed to renew the UN Commission of Inquiry’s mandate after 2021.This lessening of international oversight mechanisms in Burundi makes it harder to report on human rights developments – something relevant given reports from NGOs like Human Rights Watch and even the UN Commission of Inquiry itself that have stated human rights violations continue, especially targeting opposition members. Mausi Segun, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch’s Africa division, has stated that both the United States and the EU are well aware that the situation in Burundi has not truly improved, and that they are “choosing to ignore it”. This sets a worrying precedent for the future of human rights and civil liberties across the State.