The 1972 Burundians are a group of refugees, primarily of Hutu ethnicity, who fled their homeland in mid-1972 following a campaign of violence by the Tutsi-dominated government against the Hutu population. Burundi is a small, densely populated country, bordered by the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, and Tanzania, that has been plagued by civil strife since it gained independence from Belgium in 1962.
Often called the first genocide in the Great Lakes region, the events of 1972 killed some 200,000 Burundians and triggered the flight of approximately 150,000 refugees to Rwanda, Tanzania, and Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), with most fleeing to Tanzania. In the after-math of the genocide, Hutu citizens in Burundi were systematically repressed and purged from the army, civil service, and university system.
In October 1993, 20 years after the 1972 flight, the assassination of Burundi’s first Hutu president triggered widespread ethnic fighting and the exodus of another 500,000 refugees. A year later, the Rwandan genocide—in which Hutu extremists murdered nearly 1 million Tutsi—took place. Over the following weeks, the number of refugees fleeing into Tanzania swelled to 470,000. These refugees, some of whom were members of the militias and Rwandan army responsible for the genocide, posed a security risk in the region and stretched to near breaking point the resources of the Tanzanian government and the relief agencies.
Need for resettlement
According to UNHCR, the 1972 Burundians cannot safely return to Burundi, and the Tanzanian government has made it clear that it does not want the refugees to settle permanently in Tanzania. Therefore, resettlement in a third country, such as the United States, is the only durable solution for the group.
Although a 2000 peace agreement in Burundi has enabled 300,000 Burundian refugees to return home from camps in the Congo, Rwanda, and Tanzania in recent years, most 1972 Burundians have been unable or unwilling to repatriate. One challenge to the group’s repatriation is the length of time the refugees have spent outside their homeland. Most have spent their entire lives in exile, and as a result have acquired traits and habits that set them apart from other Burundians. They also bear an additional stigma: 1972 Burundians residing in Tanzania outside the refugee camps formed a radical opposition party that opposes the peace agreement and it is widely assumed in Burundi that the refugees in the camps share that opposition.
A third and particularly thorny issue for potential returnees is land. In Burundi, the population is almost entirely made up of small-scale peasant farmers, and in one of the most densely populated countries in Africa, access to farm land is highly competitive and contentious, especially for those who have been displaced. Many refugee returnees have faced difficulties reclaiming their land; for the 1972 Burundians, the difficulties could prove insurmountable. In most cases, their land was seized and redistributed by the Burundian government after they left the country. Most refugees were born outside Burundi or were small children when they left, and they often do not know the precise location of their family’s land. For the 1972 Burundians, conflict over land would likely become a source of conflict and further displacement, which in turn could destabilize the peace process.
What about integrating the refugees into Tanzania? Although the Tanzanian government initially welcomed and supported the refugees, recent years have seen a fundamental change in attitude, and Tanzania has put into place laws and policies that severely restrict the refugees’ freedom of movement, right to employment and property, and access to naturalization. These laws and policies make local integration virtually impossible.
Life in Refugee Camps
The roughly 9,000 1972 Burundians currently being considered for U.S. resettlement live in isolated refugee camps in remote regions of Tanzania. The natural surroundings vary from hilly and forested to flat and dusty. It is important to distinguish the 1972 Burundians targeted for U.S. resettlement from other Burundians who also arrived in Tanzania in 1972, but who live in governmentadministered settlements in the Tabora and Rukwa regions. The settlement population enjoys a degree of self-sufficiency and is not being proposed for resettlement by UNHCR.
For the 1972 Burundians being considered for resettlement, life in refugee camps in some ways resembles the rural life that they left behind in Burundi: People build mud houses for shelter, collect firewood for cooking, keep small gardens, raise ducks and other small animals, and practice their traditional customs.
Camp conditions are difficult. With no relatives sending remittances from abroad, refugees subsist on UN rations and small trading among themselves and with the local community. Burundian political groups have actively recruited in the camps, and refugees have been threatened and harassed for refusing to support the groups. Rape is also a concern for camp inhabitants.
The Tanzanian government’s Ministry of Home Affairs is responsible for administering the camps. Camp leadership is made up of elected representatives, including a camp chairperson and vice-chairperson, and street and block leaders. In addition, a traditional Burundian form of leadership known as the bashingantahe, or council of elders, made up of religious leaders and prominent personalities, operates in the camps. These leaders mediate minor conflicts within the community