The stories of Nyarugusu Refugee Camp

Jason Knapp | August 28, 2015

Mass shelters in Nyarugusu Refugee Camp. Photo: Aaron Tate / CWS

Mass shelters in Nyarugusu Refugee Camp. Photo: Aaron Tate / CWS

As I walked slowly through the camp, the crowds of refugees would quickly gather around me. The kids squeezing in first, the men and women gathering quietly around them. A community leader would soon narrate the enormous difficulties of daily life here in the camp, the horrors of the past weeks and months.

It’s now well over 86,000 new refugees from Burundi that have packed into Nyarugusu camp in Western Tanzania since April. These, in addition to the 62,000 refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo, all in a camp designed for 50,000 people.

Some refugees described fleeing forced conscription into youth militias, the Imbonerakure, of Burundi. Others explained how they were targeted, specifically because of their affiliation with a political party. Still others had been refugees for many years in the past, displaced yet again by the fear of widespread election violence in Burundi. With any number of reasons for flight, here they were seeking refuge in Tanzania, crammed in together in a camp stretched far beyond its limits.

As I listened to their stories, I found myself deeply concerned by what I found in the camp. Over 50,000 people were still living in mass shelters, quickly constructed with tarps and poles. Living in a mass shelter meant as little as one square meter per person, with no privacy whatsoever. And then, in some parts of the camp, refugees had access to too little water per person per day, lower than even the ‘minimum’ standard for emergency contexts. Some told me that their latrines were almost full, with little to no space available nearby to dig new latrines. Many children were wearing tattered clothing, covered in layers of dust, still weak from their long journey from Burundi.

Don’t get me wrong – aid agencies are working extremely hard, some around the clock, to provide life-saving services. My own agency, Church World Service, is partnering with Tanganyika Christian Refugee Service to build latrines, provide storage capacity for clean water and a range of other important services for this new influx of refugees (see this blog postfor more on this response program). This project, funded through the generosity of ACT Alliance members from around the world, goes hand in hand with other programs implemented by UNHCR, and a wide range of NGOs and U.N. agencies, designed to provide life-saving assistance to such a massive influx of refugees.

And yet, we as the humanitarian community, we need to do more; we need to do better. The world must awaken to the crisis in Burundi, the massive displacement it is causing. Our governments must step up and fund this response, and we – together with the government of Tanzania – must create humane conditions for these folks to live in safety and dignity.

We have a tall order ahead of us. I believe we’re up to the challenge.

Jason Knapp is a Humanitarian and Protection Advisor at CWS.