Last Updated: Thursday, 18 January 2018, 16:17 GMT

More to it than just land - lessons from Burundi

Publisher IRIN
Publication Date 21 November 2012
Cite as IRIN, More to it than just land - lessons from Burundi, 21 November 2012, available at: [accessed 19 January 2018]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

More than half a million Burundian refugees have returned home over the last 10 years as the effects of a 2000 peace accord took hold. Many have returned to their land, and most have received assistance with shelter, food, health and education.

For a country still devastated by a 1993-2005 civil war and decades of underdevelopment, the physical reintegration of such a large number of returnees is widely regarded as a tremendous success story.

But closer analysis of challenges faced by refugees once they come back to Burundi offers instructive insight into the less immediately visible aspects of homecoming after prolonged absences. In many cases in Burundi, because of brutal ethnic clashes in the early 1970s, these lasted 40 years.

The hardships encountered by returnees go some way to explaining why some 35,000 Burundians remain in a camp in Tanzania, despite having lost their refugee status. Once a 31 December deadline to leave expires, they risk deportation.

"Reintegration is not an event, it is a long process that can take even generations," said Theodore Mbazumutima, project manager with Rema Ministries, a Bujumbura-based NGO that published a detailed paper* on the Burundian process in May 2012.

"There is no such thing as a packaged answer to everybody's problems. Sometimes pre-packaged answers can help to avert a serious crisis but they cannot stand the test of time for ever," he added.

"Reintegration needs to be reimagined and redefined because the personal dimension, the identity issues are not always taken into consideration."

This overview of problems faced by returnees in Burundi is drawn from: an interview with Mbazumutima; the Rema Ministries report*; a research paper published by the UN Refugee Agency**; and interviews with international conflict-resolution NGO African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes (ACCORD), and the Commission nationale de terre et autre biens (CNTB - National Commission on Land and Other Property).


With a population density averaging around 260 people per square kilometre - and double that in some places - scarcity of land to farm is an issue not only for returnees but all Burundians, 90 percent of whom work as subsistence farmers.

As well as being virtually the only potential source of income, land in Burundi also has considerable cultural and social value, with specific plots closely linked to sense of identity.

For the most part, returning refugees who fled Burundi during the civil war have little trouble regaining possession of the plots they left. But for what is termed the "1972 caseload", disputes are legion because Burundian law grants ownership to anyone who has occupied land for 30 years or more and in many cases the government allowed those who stayed in Burundi (commonly referred to as "residents") to settle on vacated plots.

The CNTB was set up to resolve disputes which local officials are unable to settle. It generally does so by splitting individual plots between returnees and residents. Not only does this often result in plots too small to generate sufficient food to feed a household, but the CNTB's rulings tend to be overruled when residents challenge them in the courts.

Currently, CNTB has about 10,000 unresolved disputes on its books, the vast majority related to land.

A more sustainable solution to land disputes being mooted is the creation of special tribunals dedicated to restitution issues linked to Burundi's several waves of external displacement.

The involvement of external mediation - such as that conducted by ACCORD - whereby agreements are reached by consensus, tend not to be revisited in the courts.

Thousands of returnees who ended up landless, or who were classed as "vulnerable", have been housed in what were first termed "peace villages" and then Rural Integrated Villages (VRI), of which there are nine, in three southern provinces. The VRI initiative has had mixed success - poverty levels there have been a particular cause of concern - and is in the process of evolution.

See also: Land key obstacle to reintegration

Employment and economic diversification

The economy of Burundi, one of the poorest countries in the world, is based on subsistence agriculture, in which some 90 percent of the population is engaged. Few farmers grow enough to sell much of a surplus. The private sector is minimal, and offers few employment opportunities.

Such opportunities are particularly important for former refugees who did not farm while out of the country; for them regaining a plot without agricultural training is not very conducive to economic self-sufficiency.

Many refugees received some form of skills-training in camps, such as carpentry, or operated small businesses such as shops or bicycle taxi operations, but find themselves unable ply such trades back home for lack of materials, capital, access to credit, recognition of professional qualifications gained in exile, or the social networks that facilitate economic activity.

Membership fees charged by trade associations in Burundi are often beyond the means of returning refugees.

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