18 June 2004
The United Nations refugee agency says it is trying to move thousands of Congolese refugees deeper into Burundi. The refugees fled fighting in the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The U.N. says the refugees are too close to the battle zone.
The Burundi country representative for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Kaba Neyaja, says the government of Burundi has agreed in principle to set up two areas in the country's interior for the refugees.
"We have discussed with the government member who is in charge for refugees the possibility to get the new site(s), because the situation on the ground is very, very urgent. We have to move the refugee(s) quickly, he said.
Mr. Neyaja says Congolese refugees camped out in two Burundi sites near the Congolese border are too close to the fighting that caused them to flee. He says it is U.N. policy to move refugees away from border areas for their own protection.
There is a third site for the refugees near Burundi's capital, Bujumbura.
Burundi officials in charge of refugees were unavailable for comment.
About 26,000 Congolese fled across the border to Burundi when fighting broke out in and around the eastern city of Bukavu in May. Renegade soldiers earlier this month, overran Bukavu but withdrew a week later. Their commander says they did so after hearing reports of mistreatment of local ethnic Tutsi.
U.N. officials in the D.R.C. denied claims that Tutsis were being exterminated, but said both government troops and the renegade soldiers terrorized the local population.
According to the refugee agency, the recent arrivals in Burundi include mainly ethnic Banyamulenge who apparently fled as a precautionary measure because they were afraid of revenge attacks.
The agency says other ethnic groups are fleeing to avoid the rebels and government forces allied with the Mai Mai militia.
World Food Program officer, Guillaume Folio, says hosting thousands of Congolese refugees may pose a problem for Burundi, which has a limited supply of food.
"The capacity and the food availability is limited compared to the population because the density of population is so high that (the) market cannot provide food for everybody, he said. So with this extra caseload of refugees the hosting population cannot assist them."
Mr. Foliot says, at present, his agency has received enough food to feed the refugees but could not say how long the food supply would last.
An early warning bulletin released this week by the United Nations, non-government organizations, donors and the Burundi government warns that Burundi is on the verge of a serious food shortage.
The bulletin says the shortages could begin in August and last up to five months. It blames the early arrival of the dry season and the subsequent sharp drop in bean production for the shortage.