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How to handle assistance to returning refugees: The Burundi case

In partnership with CARITAS and UNHCR, WFP is using a distribution system in Burundi that enables beneficiaries to receive smaller rations closer to their home. By providing a discreet ration card instead of a large package of food, beneficiaries are protected against risks associated with carrying large quantities of food over long distances.


Welcome to the first issue of WFP's new blog on topics related to food assistance programming. The aim is to introduce new tools and approaches WFP and other agencies are using in the fight against hunger. I will reflect on stories from the field as well as on new projects still in development. This blog, however, also wants to serve as a forum for your comments and suggestions on topics that you consider important to be discussed.

This story highlights an original food distribution scheme introduced to support refugees return to Burundi. The system, set up in 2007, serves Burundian refugees returning from camps in Tanzania.

Before cooperation between WFP and CARITAS began, each returning refugee received a single food package at the Tanzanian/Burundian border. The food in the package was meant to last six months and returnees had to carry it with them. Now, when they cross the border, returnees are given a ration card proving their six-month return "food entitlement". This food is then picked up every month at distribution points close to their home.

The new partnership and system works to meet three main objectives:

1) Minimize the final transport problem for beneficiaries.
Transportation of beneficiaries, provided by UNHCR, does not bring them to their final destination. Ittakes them to their province of origin. Returnees then have to get from the provincial drop off point to their village of origin -- often a significant distance.

2) Reduce selling and/or theft of goods from the package
At nearly 100kg per person the hefty food package made this final leg of the trip difficult. Sometimes beneficiaries were forced to sell part of the food just to get a ride back to their village. Smaller portions distributed over a period of time prevent this from happening.

3) Make food rations more discreet.
Returning refugees often come home to communities affected by long term food security threats. Community members could clearly see the short term food abundance provided by the six month food package of the returnees, and they pushed beneficiaries to share. Beneficiaries obliged their neighbours’ request to ensure social reintegration. The ration card system offers a discreet alternative.

The solution was novel yet simple. CARITAS uses a network of local Catholic Diocesan parishes to organize the reception of WFP food packages for returnees, stock food items in existing storage facilities, and manage the distribution of the monthly ration to beneficiaries. WFP supplies and delivers the food, prints and provides the food coupons delivered at the border, trains CARITAS workers on storage management and distribution, and assists the monitoring and evaluation of food distributed to returnees.

WFP and CARITAS established a returnee food distribution system that addressed all major issues. From 2007 through 2009 the partnership programme benefited 200,000 returning refugees. It will continue throughout 2010.


Response to Mike

It is not yet standard practice and I agree with you that we shall aim to extend similar mechanism - where doable and when needed - as much as possible. I believe that the costs implication of setting up such an extra distribution system (post return) within the frame of repatriation operations - that are often under ressourced - have been one of the main constraint. Guillaume

Interesting piece, Guillaume.

Interesting piece, Guillaume. It makes perfect sense to give food in smaller batches. It just surprises me that this sort of approach isn't standard practice all over. Or maybe it is by now?