Taking Extra Care in the Great Lakes Region & Special Attention to the Burundian Refugee Crisis

By Dana Lea

Region in Conflict

The Great Lakes Region of Africa includes the central eastern states of Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda. Since independence from their various European colonies, this region has been plagued by multiple wars and occurrences of large-scale ethnic conflict (referred to by many as genocide). Most publically noted, the region experienced the Rwandan Genocide in the early 1990s and a failed attempt at both peacekeeping and international humanitarian aid delivery. Furthermore, the DRC has been embroiled in one of the world’s longest civil wars that has evolved with various actors, including rebel and ethnic groups, at the cost of many civilian lives.

-Images from Creative Commons
Images compiled from Creative Commons by author



Presently, the region finds itself in the midst of a growing political and security situation with regards to Burundi. In April 2015, the President of Burundi, Pierre Nkurunziza, announced his bid for a third term as president. This was received by international and domestic protest since it not only goes against the Burundian constitutions but also their 2000 Arusha Peace Accords. Since this announcement violence against the political opposition has erupted and the death toll has reached over 200 people. Because of this insecurity and instability, refugees have fled from the nation. According to the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), 217,323 people have fled into neighboring states as of November 2015.

This heavy and rapid flow of refugees has been met by overstretched and underfunded aid agencies. The UNHCR is working with 22 other humanitarian aid agencies in the region to provide emergency refugee aid. But these agencies are highly underfunded and overstretched. This blog is going to address many of the issues with current refugee assistance in the region. This is a region that is being greatly overshadowed by recent events in the European migrant crisis as well as the Syrian refugee crisis, with the displacement of millions of Syrian refugees.


Burundi: On the Verge of Genocide?

This region of Africa is notorious for occurrences of genocide and political corruption. Burundi experienced three previous instances of genocide, 1965, 1988 and 1993. Political and ethnic unrest in the region has tightly been tied to ethnic tension between the Tutsi and Hutu groups and it has been rare for conflict to stay contained within one nation. Ethnic conflict has spilled over into neighboring countries through flows of displaced peoples, often where a group can rearm itself and reorganize. This is known as the creation of the refugee warrior (Terry, 2002) and can be abetted unwittingly, or reluctantly, through humanitarian aid.

The current crisis in Burundi seems to be contained as a political crisis. A Constitutional Court and Nkurunziza’s own party, the CNDD-FDD, approved his bid and he unsurprisingly went on to a landslide victory in July 2015. The political violence that has taken place since seems to be directed at all political opposition rather than one ethnic group in particular. The government remains ethnically mixed, as do the refugees that are fleeing. The main fears among civilians are of the regime’s police and a violent regime-associated youth wing, the Imbonerakure; yet, given the region’s history, the international community must be cautious of the escalation of such a conflict that is being manipulated as ethnic war under the auspices of politics. Additionally, there are rumors that Rwanda is arming and training a Burundian refugee force. This further decreases trust in the region and the possibility of igniting regional war.

BDI_EmergencySitn_NewArrivals_151115 (1)

Current Response: Over Stretched and Underfunded

The UNHCR and many of its partners in the Burundian refugee response have made appeals for emergency funding. Vast amounts of funding are currently being allocated to the much-needed Syrian crisis and flows of refugees into Europe. Simply, Europe and the Middle East are the focus of media attention, and the Great Lakes Region is not. However, given its tumultuous history and failures in peacekeeping and humanitarian aid, it should not be ignored. A joint-press release by six international agencies in the refugee response has made appeals for emergency funding and attention. These camps and safe zones lack the land appropriate for providing humane assistance and livable conditions. The camps are facing extreme overcrowding with a lack of land. Supplies are running low, including food and medical. Additionally, health, especially with the Tanzanian outbreak of Cholera, is of concern with a lack of sanitation infrastructure, primary health access, and treated water. Furthermore, the UNHCR has cited appeals for increased protection and biometric registration capabilities. Specifically, there is a need to protect women and children, who each make up over half of the refugee population, from sexual violence, abuse, and recruitment.

Moving forward

Humanitarian aid response is supposed to be a short-term solution, but many refugee crises have turned refugee camps into long-term settlements. Humanitarian aid cannot be the only approach taken to address political and ethnic conflicts. Though the current crisis desperately needs attention and greater donor aid, it is important for nations to recognize that aid organizations are not solely responsible for filling in the gaps for governments, and a comprehensive and durable political solution is required.

For long-term and durable regional solutions to be achieved, nations must recognize the importance of measures for security assistance. The crisis in Burundi is currently a political crisis, not an ethnic one. Taking lessons from the past, the international community should be quick to act with a strong hand in the region before the crisis is allowed to escalate further.

Because of the nature of the present crisis, intervention that directly targets the regime is going to be most useful since the regime is focused on clinging to its power and legitimacy. Unfortunately, Burundi is opposed to African Union intervention as a breach of sovereignty for a situation that is merely viewed internally as controlled political strife. Despite refusal of foreign soldiers, the AU should push forward with the initiative, and it would be wise of the United States to back the mission technically and monetarily given the recent labeling of the situation in Burundi as a security threat to the USA.


Dana Anne Lea

Dana Lea is a Master’s candidate at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce. Her academic and research interest are human rights and migration, with a particular focus on Sub Saharan Africa. She currently works for the Kentucky Refugee Ministries as a citizenship instructor.


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