The UN refugee agency said on Friday that more than 105,000 people have fled to neighbouring countries to escape political violence in Burundi, with many now trapped in dire conditions in a border village on the shore of Lake Tanganyika.
“While the coup attempt is reported to have been foiled, the situation in Burundi’s capital Bujumbura remains tense with sporadic outbursts of violence reported this morning,” Karin de Gruijl, a spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, told a news conference.
“Over 105,000 people have now fled the country, with 70,187 in neighbouring Tanzania, 26,300 in Rwanda and 9,183 to the province of South Kivu in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.”
UNHCR said the number of arrivals in Tanzania had risen sharply in recent days, with authorities reporting that over 50,000 Burundians are living rough in Kagunga, a border village on the shore of Lake Tanganyika. De Gruijl said there are reports that at least another 10,000 people are waiting to cross into Tanzania.
Kagunga is a small village on the border between Burundi and Tanzania that is best reached by boat because of a steep mountain range on the Tanzanian side.
UNHCR chartered the ageing ferry MV Liemba on 3 May to transfer refugees from Kagunga to Kigoma. However the ferry can carry only 600 people and a transfer takes up to 10 hours, with fishing boats needed to move refugees between the small dock and the ferry.
“We have now identified a second ship that can carry up to 300 people, but that will not be able to operate at night,” de Gruijl said. “We are also currently verifying a mountain track that some of refugees could take to leave Kagunga.”
After a four-hour walk though the mountains, refugees would spend a night at a temporary UNHCR camp before moving by bus to Nyanrugusu refugee camp, she said.
“With the rapidly increasing number of people arriving in Kagunga, the living conditions have become extremely dire. People managed to bring some food and can fish in the lake, but the lack of clean drinking water, latrines and shelter is acute,” the spokesperson said.
“The local health services in the village are overwhelmed. We are now setting up a reception centre to address the most urgent needs. We are also fast-tracking the transfer of pregnant women, children, elderly and sick refugees to Kigoma.”
In Kigoma, authorities have made a stadium available to accommodate the refugees before they go to Nyarugusu refugee camp. With the help of local partners, UNHCR has turned the stadium into a large transit centre where refugees will stay a few days while being registered and receiving medical care before being transferred to the refugee camp.
Seventeen trucks with thousands of tents, plastic sheeting, mosquito nets, blankets, kitchen sets, jerry cans, solar lamps and other basic relief items from UNHCR regional warehouses are expected to arrive in Kigoma on Sunday, as UNHCR and its partners gear up for a large-scale refugee emergency. More than 18,000 refugees have been moved to the refugee camp so far.
Refugees from Burundi also continue to arrive in Rwanda, although the rate has decreased in the last two weeks, de Gruijl said. “Refugees report that authorities in Burundi have made it very difficult for people to leave the country. According to those who have managed to reach Rwanda in the last few days, there are roadblocks and checkpoints where police or militia prevent people from continuing their journey towards Rwanda.”
Rwanda is currently hosting more than 26,300 Burundian refugees, most living in Mahama refugee camp. In addition, UNHCR plans next week to start registering the undetermined number of Burundians who have settled in urban areas.