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Land shortage a problem for returnees

While the United Nations High Commission for Refugees is set to repatriate thousands of Burundian refugees back to their country from neighbouring Tanzania, Refugees International and the African Center for Technology Studies have called for a hold of plans until access to land issues are first sorted out.
Henry Neondo

The Burundian government and the international community are attentively focused on the mass repatriation of Burundian refugees from Tanzania with perceived improved security scenario within Burundi.

But the American based Refugees International, RI, and the Kenya based policy think-tank, ACTS have called on the UN High Commission for Refugees, UNHCR, to slow the repatriation process down until the government of Burundi has shown more progress towards addressing key social issues, such as access to land and housing.

Chris Huggins and Benson Ochieng, research fellow at the ACTS, and Coordinator, for Pan-African Programme on Land and Resource Rights, PAPLRR, respectively, say, "the return of the refugees and the situation of the Internally Displaced Persons, IDPs will hinge on the way land scarcity and land ownership disputes are managed".

Beginning November this year and the next, the UNHCR plans to repatriate 150,000 out of 400,000 Burundian refugees who fled to Tanzania in the past decade and the RI says the UNHCR facilitated repatriation process is moving at a rapid pace, perhaps too rapid.
Refugees International is concerned that the pace of the repatriation threatens the security of the returning refugees because UNHCR Burundi lacks the capacity to protect the returnees at the current levels of repatriation and because conditions inside Burundi are unstable.

A study conducted by the ACTS show that more than half the refugees feel that land shortage was either crucial or important obstacle to their returning. Following the August 2000 signing of a peace agreement in Arusha, Tanzania and the enhanced regional stability brought about by the peace process in neighbouring DR Congo, there is now an opportunity for peace, a mass return of refugees and development.

Article IV of the Arusha Accord provides that all returning refugees will be able to access their property, including their land or receive adequate compensation and recognises the need for the equitable apportionment and redistribution of national resources throughout the country.

According to Huggins, the current situation of mass refugee return is not lacking a historical precedent. He says that in 1993, land disputes related to the return of refugees significantly contributed to the deterioration of the political situation that culminated in a coup d'etat and the assassination of President Ndadaye.

And according to Ochieng, previous work by the PAPLRR, a network of African land and resources rights experts, concluded that inequitable access to land is one of the several structural causes of conflict in Burundi contributing to poverty and grievances against the government and elite groups.

In a country where 93 per cent of the population is rural and dependent on agriculture for subsistence, access to arable land is a priority for almost every household. Due to high population density, Burundi with an approximate population of 6.8 million people and over 80 per cent of rural households having less than 1.5 hectares of land, is sharply divided ethnically between the Hutu, that make 85 per cent of the population and the Tutsi, forming 14 per cent and Twa (pygmoid) forming 1 per cent.

PAPLRR and ACTS studies show that landlessness stands at about 1.5 per cent nationally and the figure is 53 per cent for the Twa, a marginalised minority group. Those who have been away from their land for long periods have greater difficulty in gaining access to land especially those who fled the country in 1972.

Their land especially that located in the fertile Imbo plains was confiscated virtually systematically by the government. The new owners have a legitimate claim to it since they were issued with title deeds. In some cases, land may have changed hands several times. According to Huggins, the 1986 Burundi Land Code states that if somebody occupies land for more than 30 years and there are no claims within 2-3 years of this period passing, then the government should reallocate the land to them.

On its part, RI says that women in Burundi are particularly marginalized, as the economy remains particularly concentrated in the hands of men. An agrarian society, women cannot inherit land, and the high prevalence of poverty leads to the choice of male children going to school.

Almost 10 percent of the Burundian population live in neighboring Tanzania as refugees. Add to this, UN estimates the number of internally displaced and dispersed persons (IDPs), as 10 percent of the Burundian population. Access to the internally displaced remains difficult due to insecurity throughout the country.
In Tanzania, the refugee camps that host 350,000 are too close to the shared border with Burundi (451 km long), prompting rebel groups to use them as bases for rest and relaxation, a significant problem for the country.
In addition, the refugee camps suffer from serious food shortages, as well as health and safety problems. International support to aid the refugees consistently comes up short, even as Tanzania restricts its own refugee policy, inhibiting refugees from employment and tilling arable land.
Due to the exacerbated poverty of the camp inhabitants, serious problems of violence against women and children have arisen, including rapes and domestic violence.
Burundi is predominately Christian 62 per cent, with indigenous beliefs 23 per cent and Muslim 10 per cent. Currently, the country has a three-year Transitional Government as approved at the Arusha Peace Accords and that led former military Tutsi President Pierre Buyoya to hand over power to his Hutu Vice President Domitien Ndayizeye in 2003.
According to the agreements of the Arusha Peace Accord, the Transitional Government will cede to national elections in November 2004.
However, Burundi has had a number of difficulties in addressing the two major concerns of the Peace Accord: a cease-fire and the integration of the army. Fresh fighting broke out between the rebels and government forces in the capital, Bujumbura, in July 2003. In January 2004, President Ndayizeye held talks with the remaining active rebel groups outside the Arusha Peace Process.

A landlocked, overpopulated country with poor soil, overly reliant on the amount of rainfall and seriously affected by drought cycles, 70 percent of Burundians live below the poverty line.
Doubts about the sustainability of the Transitional Government to implement peace continue to impede development and donor interest in the country.

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