Expert Opinion

“A recipe for violence”: The impact of Burundi’s downward spiral on displacement

Since April 2015, violent clashes stemming from Nkurunziza's attempt to remain president for a third term have degenerated into a humanitarian crisis. Over 223,000 refugees have now fled to neighbouring countries, and as of October at least 14,800 people had sought safety in other parts of Burundi.

A UN human rights official has warned that the UN is even less equipped to deal with violence in Burundi than it was for the Rwandan genocide. IDMC will be closely monitoring displacement in the country in the coming weeks and calls on the international community to convene an urgent and inclusive dialogue on the situation.

In this Q&A, Theodore Mbazumutima from Rema Ministries [a Burundian NGO working on displacement-related issues in the country] provides IDMC with insight from the capital, Bujumbura, on what is currently happening in the country, where people are fleeing and how the country’s silent environmental crisis has and will continue to compound the political emergency. 

How did the current political crisis begin?

It all started with President Nkurunziza’s announcement of plans to seek a third term in office. The political opposition and a good number of civil society organizations started to demonstrate against this “extra” term, labeling it a coup d’état against the Arusha Peace Agreement and the constitution. From the onset of demonstrations in April 2015, it was clear that our society was going to be divided among those for or against another term in office. A third group, perhaps the largest, was also being formed: the silent ones who were carefully following events from a distance.

The two more vocal groups grew hostile towards one another quickly; it was clearly going to be a tense situation. As events progressed, the silent group – those not allied to either of the two groups – started seeing themselves targeted and persecuted or simply felt very unsafe.

Who is fleeing the violence and where are they going? 

People who were able to go to Rwanda, Tanzania or the Democratic Republic of Congo have done so but others were not able to leave Burundi (for reasons explained below). A lot of these people joined their relatives up country waiting for things to cool down in the city so that they could come back. Other people moved to areas of the city that were less agitated, especially rich suburbs. In both cases people used their social connections to get shelter and food.

At one point I had 15 people living in my house and our offices at Rema still have a family occupying some of our rooms.  The movement of people grew bigger as the conflict became violent, especially after the failed coup. The danger is now felt by everybody. People are dying on an almost daily basis and it is now clear that some areas are emptying their populations while other quartiers are filling up. Housing is also becoming very expensive. Most internally displaced persons (IDPs) can simply not afford to rent a house, so they have to survive through their social connections.

Why are some people staying in Burundi instead of fleeing the country?

Most Burundians have been refugees before, so they understand the kind of troubles that refugees have to endure. Upon coming back last time many could not find their property, their land, housing, or their jobs. So this time, they chose to stay in the country, maybe to spare themselves from the nightmare of not only living a dehumanizing life in the refugee camps but also of losing everything back home.

Of course, by choosing to stay in Burundi, they take on the risk of losing their lives. Becoming an IDP is their way of reducing this risk.

Another reason why crossing borders has not been the first option for many is that most people simply did not foresee a massive war throughout the country. After ten years of considerable stability and security sector reform, many believed that the crisis was going to stay limited to some areas and that it would be possible to stay physically safe by moving to more secure places in the country.

Can we say with any certainty how many people are internally displaced?

Unlike the refugees, who go through a UNHCR database, it is difficult to know the numbers of IDPs because nobody has done a systematic survey. Even more difficult is knowing the severity of their vulnerability. I am, however, sure that they are vulnerable, because in the process of moving from one place to another, they lost their livelihoods. It is even harder to understand how all this is affecting the people still displaced by the civil war years ago who are estimated to be close to 80,000 [see IDMC’s figure analysis for Burundi here].

With regard to the possibility of collecting information from IDPs and even from Burundians in general, I think the nature of the information to be collected and the person collecting it are determinant factors as to whether or not informants are willing to share their story. IDPs and indeed other Burundians always run the risk of being persecuted by both sides (the government and opposition elements) by speaking their mind on the current political crisis. People are likely going to hold back from sharing information with somebody who is clearly tagged as being for or against the third term of the current president.

Are there other causes of displacement in the country and how have they compounded the political crisis?

While the country is struggling to come to terms with the magnitude of the political emergency, we are also experiencing a serious environmental crisis. Trees are being cut for development, and nothing is being done to replace them. Rains are heavy and have started claiming people’s lives and property. As a result we have displaced people in nearly every province. I do not know how many but they must be in the thousands.

Something must be done urgently in order to evaluate the needs of those displaced and expand the current definition of displacement in order to include the environmental dimension. This destruction of lives and property increases economic vulnerability and creates extreme poverty in Burundi. Sooner or later, this is a recipe for violence.