Global Resources

Women and girls failed: the Burundian refugee response in Tanzania

Publisher: Refugees International
Publication Date: Dec 2015

Since April 2015, political instability and violence has rocked Burundi, forcing an estimated 220,000 people to flee to neighbouring countries. Approximately half of these refugees are women, and around half of the many women who reported gender-based violence (GBV) upon reaching refugee camps in Tanzania required post-rape care. Yet, even at the  camps, where refugees are meant to be protected, women and girls report that the threat of violence remains. According to this publication, these circumstances represent a significant failure on the part of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHRC), Tanzanian authorities, and implementing partners

Researches from Refugee International traveled to Burundi, Tanzania, and Rwanda in September/October of 2015 to assess the protection needs of newly-displaced Burundians. Since Tanzania had recently become a host to around 92,000 refugees, it was an ideal context to evaluate GBV prevention and response integration into the humanitarian response. Most refugees were transferred to the Nyarugusu refugee camp, one of the oldest and largest refugee camps in Africa. The research team visited the camp and spoke to many Burundian survivors, finding that between May and September, there were 224 reported GBV incidents in or around the camp, including rape and sexual assault. The number of unreported incidents can be assumed to be much higher still.

Upon further consultation with refugees and survivors, the team found that aside from the hospital, police station, and the GBV resource centre, refugees deemed most of the rest of the camp as dangerous, particularly the showers, latrines, and even their own shelters. The camp perimeter was ranked the most dangerous area, and the chore of collecting firewood the most dangerous activity. Males also noted the dangerous areas, but agreed it was more dangerous for women than for themselves. The report goes into some depth on the shortcomings of the camp infrastructure, including: unsafe access to firewood; inadequate water, sanitation, and hygiene conditions; unsafe distribution centres; and the use of mass shelters in very poor condition. Furthermore, recommendations from two previous assessments appear not to have been acted upon, and multiple sources said that those leading the response did not seem to have a firm grasp of the importance of minimum standards to reduce the risk of GBV, or know how to implement them.

The authors recognise that these unacceptable conditions have come about partly due to the scale and speed with which the crisis unfolded. The camp soon exceeded the numbers it was designed for, and responses were often desperate, and lacked adequate support from the Tanzanian authorities. Additionally, funding was wholly inadequate from the start; six months after the crisis started, the inter-agency refugee response was only 24% funded. That said, the authors conclude that all stakeholders have essentially failed these refugees; and that they need to invest more expertise, resources, and funding to significantly improve the situation of refugee women and girls.

A number of recommendations are made, split into three parts according to the intended audience:

  • The UNHCR should: review the existing joint complaints mechanism for refugee camps in Tanzania; ensure that the UN’s own best practices are complied with; and hold its implementing partners accountable for complying with SPHERE handbook standards and Inter-Agency Standing Committee’s guidelines.
  • In all refugee camps, UNHCR and implementing partners should: immediately refurbish latrine and shower facilities so that they are segregated by gender, and have internally locking doors; prioritise distribution of core relief items that address the dignity and safety of women, in consultation with the women and girls; hold working group coordinators accountable for ensuring strategies align with the aforementioned standards and guidelines; and strengthen new camps’ protection strategies to incorporate GBV lifesaving interventions.
  • International donors should: increase their contributions to the Burundi refugee response plan; fund specialised lifesaving interventions that comply with the Minimum Initial Service Package for Reproductive Standards; and hold UNHCR Tanzania accountable for integrating protection and GBV throughout all its operations.