8 June 2015: While the world’s attention is understandably on the devastating earthquake in Nepal, another humanitarian emergency is unravelling in East Africa. Following the decision of Burundi’s president to stand for a third term in office, which the opposition claim is against the Burundian constitution, protests have led to violence causing thousands of Burundians to flee into neighbouring countries.
What started as a trickle of refugees at the start of May has turned into a flood of people coming through different entry points in Tanzanian villages at the border area, with more than 100,000 refugees now having crossed the border. Some 70,000 of these are trapped in the tiny village of Kagunga, whilst they wait for the daily boat trip which will take them to the other side of Lake Tanganyika to the refugee camps.
In Kagunga, refugees pile packed together, squeezed between the hillside and the coastal line. There is not even sufficient room for them to set up makeshift shelters. Families just sit on top of each other, as they wait and wait for the passage to the other side of Lake Tanganyika where more waiting in inhuman environments awaits them.
Having received a request to support Plan International’s emergency response, it took me 36 hours to get from my office in central London to Kigoma airport. Stepping off the plane, the Plan field team took me straight to the major transit camp, located in Kigoma Football Stadium, which is where refugees are meant to be held for a few hours before being transported to a permanent camp, a Nyarugusu, a 2-hour drive inland.
However, as Nyarugusu is already overcrowded and the authorities cannot keep pace with the new intake; families have been kept in this temporary shelter for days. Indeed, as I walk through what was the players’ tunnel, the smell hit me first. There are limited clean water and sanitation facilities here. Then I emerge into the light to see a football pitch covered from end to end in people. Families clumped closely together with their belonging between them. I am not surprised when a staff member tells me that cholera has already killed 33 people.
The population of the camp fluctuates between 1,000 and 3,000 depending on the in and out flows of the refugees. Children are everywhere, some wander around with siblings or friends staring wide-eyed at the crowds of people that are waiting for their food rations, but the majority sit in silence, withdrawn and with glazed eyes. Many of them have thinned and their hair is patchy, showing signs of severe malnutrition. Aid workers scurry around, shattered and frustrated – holding the situation together by a fine thread.
Child support and protection
Plan Tanzania, Emergency Community Worker, Oscar Kapande explains: “It is staying together as community ties are strong – there is no stealing, there is limited violence, but this cannot last long. So many people in such a desperate situation; it is the children that I am worried for – many lost their parents and are here unaccompanied.”
Plan International was among of the first organisations to send an emergency field team to Western Tanzania and, as well as working with the Red Cross on cholera prevention activities, is now working with UNICEF and International Rescue Committee (IRC) to set up temporary child-friendly spaces where children can receive support and vulnerable cases referred to health clinics or the relevant government agency.
Monica Nyatega, the Child Protection Specialist for IRC explains the challenges that children are facing; “Many of the children arrive on their own; separated from their parents due to the complications of transport; some of them have lost parents to cholera, or have sick parents in the hospital. Some have fled the violence on their own and have nothing.”
There are some positives though. Monica’s face breaks into a smile as she tells us how her team united separated children the day before after tracking down their parents in a clinic.
We are also in discussion with the IRC on collaborating on a Back to School campaign to ensure that children’s right to education is not sacrificed during what has already been a highly traumatic experience.
It is a start, but it is insufficient. The next few days are crucial – as so often is the case, the international community is going to have to pull together if it has any chance of getting on top of this emergencie, to save lives and to start to restore a semblance of dignity of the refugee population.