Geneva – Nearly 10 000 Burundians fled the country over the weekend before Burundi closed its borders ahead of controversial and violence-wracked elections in the troubled east African nation, the United Nations said on Tuesday.
Since Burundi’s political turmoil began in April, some 144 000 people have fled the country, with the numbers surging towards the end of last week, the UN refugee agency said.
“The pace this weekend spiked… We saw over the weekend 10 000 more Burundians fleeing the country,” the UNHCR spokesperson Melissa Fleming told reporters in Geneva.
More than 6 000 had arrived in neighbouring Tanzania alone over the two-day period, bringing the total there to around 66 600.
Violation of peace deal
Burundian officials closed the borders late Sunday ahead of Monday’s controversial parliamentary polls – something they claim is common practice during elections – and plan to reopen them late on Tuesday.
“Over the last 48 hours, refugees and people trying to flee have been resorting to trying to cross informal border crossings through the forest to leave the country,” Fleming said.
People arriving in neighbouring countries have told aid workers that roads are being blocked and that people suspected of heading to the border are being forced off buses, she said.
“Many said they had to walk for hours through the bush without luggage so as not to attract the attention of the militia and the police,” she said.
“We are concerned that people who want to flee to seek asylum, who fear their lives are in danger … are not able to leave the country,” she added.
The troubled central African nation has been in crisis since late April over President Pierre Nkurunziza’s controversial bid to stand for a third consecutive five-year term, a move branded by opponents as unconstitutional and a violation of a peace deal that ended 13 years of civil war in 2006.
The opposition boycotted Monday’s parliamentary elections, which precede the planned presidential vote on July 15.
While the flood of refugees leaving Burundi initially consisted largely of women and children, Fleming said a growing number of men were now leaving.
They had told aid workers they fled because of the breakdown in diplomatic negotiations and over fear the ongoing violence will escalate leading up to the July 15 presidential vote.
“They’re very concerned that the country is going to break down,” Fleming said, adding that international appeals for funds to assist the refugees was “not meeting with much donor generosity.”
A month ago, UNHCR and its partners appealed for $207m to help protect and help up to 200 000 Burundian refugees, but have so far received just 13% of that amount.
FOLLOW NEW AFRICA BUSINESS NEWS ON FACEBOOK @ New Africa Business News.com