Michel lives with his family of seven under a one-room tent on the small lake shore village of Kagunga, Tanzania. His tent, given to him by UNHCR (the UN’s refugee bracket), has yellowed from the persistent weather. He and 60,000 other refugees subsist on the generosity of the poor village community and UNHCR’s small budget. They lack stoves, lamps, water tanks, and medicine. They build makeshift schools out of plastic sheeting. When cholera broke out across the island, patients were transferred to an overburdened refugee camp via an old German World War I warship that had once served as a tourist attraction.
Just yesterday, the heads of state of four Central African countries and representatives from seven others gathered at a summit to tackle the national security issue presented by Boko Haram. They discussed, too, the political instability in Burundi. In Burundi and other parts of sub-Saharan Africa, families are willing to flee and seek shelter in other war-torn countries. For some, like the Ethiopians and South Sudanese, it is a matter of fleeing ethnic discrimination. For others, it is a matter of escaping the fighting over resources like food. Overstretched and underfunded, humanitarian agencies are not equipped to welcome migrants to countries already embroiled in war. Funds for Burundi total 155 million euros, but Ama Asiamah of the UNHCR says it simply isn’t enough. “It’s not that the international community isn’t giving enough,” she said, “it’s that the humanitarian crisis in the world is so strong, and our emergency has not captured the attention other emergencies have captured.”
“Even if the crisis is resolved,” Asiamah added, “many refugees have no homes to return to.”
Michel left Burundi after a coup failed against President Pierre Nkurunziza last May. Wracked with twelve years of civil war until peace negotiations in 2005, Burundi descended into political turmoil after Nkurunziza announced that he would be running for a third term. Activists took to the streets. Under Burundi’s constitution, a president is not allowed to serve for three terms. The U.S. State Department declared that Pierre’s actions threaten the Burundi people’s right to democracy and undermine the opportunity to establish a tradition of “peaceful democratic transition.”
President Nkurunziza has used a campaign of murder and intimidation to create fear within an ill-informed population. People are stolen from their beds at night and disappear forever. Nkurunziza has prohibited any international intervention or media coverage, which many interpret to be the first signs of a dictatorship. The Burundi are also aware that most of the targeted individuals are Tutsi, whereas Nkurunziza is a Hutu. However, Thierry Vircoulon of the International Crisis Group believes that the government is trying to divert the political synergy of protestors by “playing the ethnic card.” Life in refugee camps is brutal, but “a bad life is better than death,” said Frank, another Burundi at a refugee camp in Tanzania.