Africa, Development & Aid, Headlines, North America, Population

REFUGEES: UN Agencies Criticised Over Treatment of Burundi Refugees

Ihsan Bouabid

NEW YORK, Jul 19 1998 (IPS) - International humanitarian groups, including the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees UNHCR), have kept only “distant” relations with local refugee leaders in Burundi, and failed to hold constructive dialogue on problems faced, according to a U.S. non-governmental organisation.

“UNHCR officials learn about us from a distance…and, when they come to our refugee schools, UNHCR officials and other representatives just hear our children sing and then its ‘bye, bye’, one refugee teacher in a refugee camp in Tanzania told the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children.

A report by the Commission describes this and other findings about relations between representatives of UN bodies and Burundian refugees in assessing the protection and assistance needs of Burundian children and adolescents.

After the assassination in Oct 1993 of Burundi’s democratically- elected President Melchior Ndadaye, the Central African nation lived though a period of terror and mass murder. In early 1994 it was estimated that more than one-quarter of the country’s total population of 5.4 million has been killed or displaced as a result of the ethnic confrontation between Tutsis and Hutus.

The report by the Women’s Commission NGO denounced a lack of interest among the international community in the Burundian tragedy anddeplored the fact killings were still going on five years after the outbreak of the civil conflict.

“The persistant figure of 150,000 killed since 1993 is symbolic of how Burundi’s civil war is being overlooked even as it is being monitored,” points out the Women’s NGO.

“Rarely is Burundi’s crisis the focus of Western attention for long. Lacking the drama of Rwanda’s genocide or Mobutu’s collapse in the former Zaire, Burundi’s ongoing crisis, despite its severity, has been unable to command the world’s attention,” says Mary Diaz, Director of the Women’s Commission for Refugee Womeen and Children.

An estimated 270.000 refugees are still living in six camps along Tanzania’s border with Burundi. Moreover, the isolation surrounding them has been greatly worsened, in early 1998, by the heaviest rains that Tanzania had experienced in 25 years, thje Womens Commission said.

Founded in 1989 under the auspices of the International Rescue Committee, the Commission is the only organization in the United States exclusively dedicated to speak on behalf of women and children uprooted by wars or persecution.

Its report on the situation of refugees in Burundi is part of an ongoing project focussing on the protection of children in refugee camps around the world. Its field mission concerning children and adolescents Burundian refugees highlighted problems facing three groups particularly at risk: primary-school children not enrolled in school; adolescents of both sexes not in youth programs; and adolescent girls victimized by sexual violence.

The Commission found that a far higher proportion of Burundian children were attending school in refugee camps than in Burundi itself.

In the camps of Mtabila and Muyovosi, girls comprised 43 percent of primary school enrollment, with their numbers falling from 45 to 47 percent in grade 1 to only 32-34 percent in grade 6, mainly due to a series of domestic chores.

The report stated Commission investigators had heard remarks from both refugee men and teachers such as “Why should girls go to school? They don’t go to school in Burundi, so why should they go in the camps?”

As many of the children’s paranets had never attended school, agency officials and refugee educators found it difficult to convince them that their children should attend. But school classes had a curative effect on children and help them overcome their fears and instil confidence, the Commission report said.

Several UN agencies, including UNHCR and UNICEF, had organised an impressive range of youth apprenticeships, sports, clubs, reproductive health projects, peace education and distance education for learning English as the language taught in the camps is Kirundi, the national Burundi language.

Despite such activities, however, it had been proved that they reached very few young people who constitute 68 percent of a refugee camp like Muyovosi. In addition, it appeared that UNHCR youth programs, for example, only reached the most educated youths in the refugee camp, the report ssaid.

This inability of humanitarian agencies to provide programmes for more that a small portion of adolescents affected the future of many children.

A main task for girls and young women alike in the refugee camps was to fetch firewood, which the report said put them at risk of being raped. Many teenage girls also were the head of families as parents had died in the civil war.

On the other hand, a small number of girls and boys were joining older people in working for Tanzanians as wage laborers.

According to UNHCR Officials, less than 10 cases of rape had been reported in 1997 to Zone leaders in the refugee camps. In cases not related to drunkenness, some UNHCR officials questioned whether the rape of young girls could be actually considered as rape at all, the Commission reported.

The Women’s Commission reacted by saying that these definitions of rape as “not really rape” due to cultural or social norms – known as bride price rapes – were highly dubious and “brought into question the sensitivity of UNHCR staff in the region to human rights issues affecting women.”

“Rape is not acceptable or excusable under any circumstances , and UNHCR must make it clear to all its field staff,” the report stressed.

UNHCR officials in New York and Geneva said they had no immediate comment on the report of the Womens Commission.

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