Jean-Pierre (not his real name), whose feet swing above the ground as he sits on a plastic chair, looks more like a child in his Lego T-shirt than a teenager. Two months ago, the 15-year-old left his parents and four siblings in the province of Muyinga, in northern Burundi, and walked alone to neighbouring Rwanda.
“When I heard that they had started to kill people, I decided to leave,” Jean-Pierre said, referring to the Imbonerakure, the feared youth wing of Burundi’s ruling CNDD-FDD party. “I was afraid I could be killed.”
Aid agencies say the number of unaccompanied minors, such as Jean-Pierre, among refugees arriving in Rwanda is uncharacteristically high, putting an additional strain on the humanitarian response.
Of more than 30 000 Burundians who have fled the worst violence since the end of the civil war in 2005, and crossed into Rwanda, around 1 200 were registered as children unaccompanied or separated from their parents, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said.
President Pierre Nkurunziza’s decision in April to seek a third term in office, despite a constitutional two-term limit, sparked street protests in the capital Bujumbura and a short-lived coup. In rural areas, people said the Imbonerakure threatened those perceived to oppose the authorities, prompting many to flee.
Nearly 97 000 people have left Burundi since the beginning of April, a figure that is expected to increase as the country teeters towards controversial elections. Presidential polls were due to be held on June 26, but were postponed after the protests, in which at least 20 people were killed.
In Mahama refugee camp in eastern Rwanda, where neatly arranged tents cling to the hillsides, 970 under-18s have arrived without their parents or obvious guardians. More than 600 are teenage boys like Jean-Pierre.
“There are more boys, reflecting a feeling that they were more at risk in Burundi,” explained Elsa Bousquet, a UNHCR child protection officer.
“I knew some children who were beaten [by the Imbonerakure]; as the eldest child in the family I had to go,” said Jean-Pierre, who set off with just 2?000 Burundian francs – about R16 – given to him by his grandmother.
With over 24 000 inhabitants, Mahama hosts the majority of Burundians who fled to Rwanda. Thousands more have crossed into Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The camp used to receive up to 1?200 people a day, but that number has fallen to between 30 and 40 a day.
Explanations for why so many unaccompanied minors are on the move vary. Fear is key. Many arrivals mention the Imbonerakure militia, accused of using violence against the opposition – charges the government dismisses as propaganda.
Women and children often seek safety whereas men stay behind to guard property; sometimes parents can’t afford to travel and send their children away on their own.
Some people in Mahama said the Imbonerakure targets young men and boys, and others said families fear to move together because they think large groups will be stopped by officials in Burundi or at the Rwanda-Burundi border. Boys may also outnumber girls because it is seen to be less risky for them to travel.
Aid agencies are working to accommodate the large numbers of unaccompanied children. “We immediately try hard to find family links with others in the camp so that the children can remain in a family environment,” said Saber Azam, UNHCR’s representative in Rwanda.
“Of the 700 unaccompanied or separated children who have so far been interviewed across the country for tracing purposes, over 300 have found family links,” he said, adding that the UN also tries to set up foster care arrangements for children. – © Guardian News & Media 2015