Burundi, 20 Jan 2022 – Pushing his prized bicycle along the fissured dirt roads of Tura Hill, past lush banana plantations and earthen huts, Anicet beams with pride as he traces the story of his reintegration from life as a refugee in Tanzania to his return to Burundi.

“During the political instability of 2015, there was a shortage of food [in the community] so my family and I left Burundi to look for something to eat,” says Anicet. Unaware of the struggle that awaited them, he went on to find out that life as a refugee was itself a life of hardship.

Without land of his own, for three years the proud farmer lived in squalid conditions while working on other people’s farms to make ends meet. As time went by, however, he heard that stability might be returning to Burundi.

Eventually, in 2018, news of a more peaceful environment back home pushed the father of three and his wife to migrate once more – this time, as returnees to their native Burundi.

“I was so happy to come home to the country of my birth,” he says, “[even though] the livelihood of a returnee is not always easy.”

Women enjoy a laugh together while working on a soil conservation Quick Impact Project. Photo:  IOM/Amaury Falt-Brown

With initial support from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the family benefitted from an assisted voluntary return programme and was given transportation to Burundi and a starter fund to get back on their feet.

Nevertheless, without land or a source of income, Anicet, like tens of thousands of others, faced the struggle of reintegrating into the community he was once a part of.

“With some money that I obtained from a community microfinance scheme, I tried to open a fish trading business, but it failed,” he says. As time went by and living conditions did not improve, a weary Anicet began to once again consider life as a refugee.

Refugees returning to their country of origin often face high risks and have no steady income – a key component of the reintegration process. Returning to communities where resources are already scarce can strain the local population and lead to social conflicts between host communities, returnees and the many internally displaced persons (IDPs) who are there.

The International Organization for Migration ’s (IOM) Quick Impact Projects (QIPs) help ease tensions in provinces of high refugee returns in Burundi.

QIPs are designed to cushion the dual blows of instability and poverty, while offering beneficiaries hope of a decent life. They also serve to reduce the risk of social conflict by providing communities with opportunity.

Community members from Tura Hill team up on a soil conservation project. Photo:  IOM/Amaury Falt-Brown

Alva Fredman Klockar, project manager with IOM's transition and recovery department, says stronger social ties follow. "When returnees, IDPs and host community members come together to decide which public infrastructure to rehabilitate, it strengthens social ties between the different groups, gives them an opportunity to earn an income and contributes to the common good of the community."

IOM-organized dialogues guide the process of selecting and implementing a pertinent QIP – in collaboration with the local population, authorities and IOM’s implementing partner – Help a Child.

Anicet was a beneficiary of a QIP. Like thousands of others, he benefitted from the Cash for Work system that is the backbone of Quick Impact Projects – essentially, cash in exchange for labour.

With the funds earned from IOM, he decided to stay in Burundi rather than to migrate again. He used the cash to invest in livestock and then revived his fish trading business.

“After buying my livestock, I worked very hard, going to the river every day to buy fish and my capital started to grow,” Anicet says. “With the funds I earned I then bought a bicycle. This allowed me to bring back even more fish [to sell] from the river. Now, I also gather grasses, which I transport on my bicycle to feed my livestock.”

Michel Ndururutse checks a trench on a soil conservation site.  Photo:  IOM/Amaury Falt-Brown

With the support of the Federal Republic of Germany and the United Kingdom’s Foreign and Commonwealth Development Office (FCDO), families such as Anicet’s are rebuilding their livelihoods and investing in their futures.

UNHCR estimates that there are around 300,000 Burundian refugees still living abroad, many of whom are in the process of coming home. In 2021 alone, over 60,000 have returned, prompted by an increasingly stable climate since the Burundian presidential elections of 2020.

The lingering question is, how do provinces of high returns accommodate citizens who wish to come home without cracking an already fragile social system?

Michel Ndururutse, a member of the local Tura administration in the country’s north-east, believes that QIPs are a key part of the solution. “The population is very happy with the work being done by IOM. It is creating lasting change as the people benefit from the long-term effects of these projects,” he says.

Belise, a 21-year-old returnee from Tanzania, shares that view: “With the money that I earned from building the two classrooms of our community, I was able to buy livestock that has helped to stabilize my family life. I am very proud to have been a part of the school building,” she says.

Students learning in a classroom that was built by returnee Belise and other Cash for Work beneficiaries. Photo:  IOM/Amaury Falt-Brown

Belise explains that thanks to her involvement in the school building project, her family is connected to their neighbours. Soon, she adds, her four-year-old daughter will be going to school in the same classrooms she helped to build.

IOM’s reintegration programme not only seeks to promote community cohesion in areas of voluntary return but aims to provide communities with the means to shape more prosperous and stable futures.

Anicet says IOM’s help made all the difference. “Everything I have now is thanks to the support I received. Before that, I was ready to go back to Tanzania. This assistance allowed me to stay [in Burundi].”

This story was written by Amaury Falt-Brown, IOM Burundi, email afalt@iom.int.

SDG 1 - No Poverty
SDG 10 - Reduced Inequalities
SDG 16 - Peace Justice and Strong Institutions