By Kizito Makoye
DAR ES SALAAM (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A serious humanitarian crisis is looming as thousands of Burundi refugees stream into Tanzania and neighboring countries to escape rising political tensions and violence at home, Tanzanian and international officials said on Wednesday.
Tanzania's home affairs ministry spokesman Isaac Nantanga said more than 4,000 Burundi nationals have crossed the border into Tanzania through various entry points in recent weeks.
The influx comes as Burundi's President Pierre Nkurunziza, a former Hutu rebel leader, bids for a third term at June 26 elections, despite a two term limit, which is feared could stoke ethnic rifts between the Hutu majority and Tutsi minority.
Nantanga said the number from Burundi was rising daily as refugees, mostly women and children, fled the worst crisis in the East African nation since it emerged in 2005 from a brutal 12-year civil war.
Tanzania is home to one of the largest refugee populations in Africa, sheltering hundreds of thousands of Burundians and Congolese, and last year unveiled plans to grant citizenship to 200,000 Burundi refugees.
Nantanga said officials were moving quickly to handle this new flood of refugees safely.
"So far there are no crime incidents reported and our security forces are fully awake to ensure everything goes as planned," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Nantanga said immigration officials and those from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) were working round-the-clock to ensure all cases were handled promptly.
He said most of the asylum seekers were awaiting verification as refugees before being moved into Tanzania's only refugee camp in Kasulu in Kigoma region in northwestern Tanzania, one of the world's largest refugee camps.
"Those who have been verified are immediately moved to our Nyarugusu refugee camp in Kasulu," he said.
Stephen Mhando, UNHCR's official, said the number of Burundi asylum seekers registered at the Nyarugusu camp in Kasulu as of May 5 had reached 2,015 of whom about 1,050 are women.
Mhando said there was a further group of about 4,000 Burundi asylum seekers was at border entry points awaiting UNHCR transportation to Kasula district and to Nyarugusu camp.
"This second group is yet to be registered and only after registration can we give an accurate figure," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an email.
With the United Nations estimating nearly 40,000 refugees have fled Burundi to Tanzania, Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo in the last month, the European Commission plans to release 1.5 million Euro ($1.70 million) to meet immediate need to help and protect Burundi refugees. [ID:nL5N0XX395]
The funding is part of a 47 million Euro package set aside for total humanitarian aid for the Africa Great Lakes region for 2015.
"Such sudden and massive displacement is a humanitarian tragedy and a serious challenge to neighboring countries' capacity to accommodate refugees," Christos Stylianides, EU commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management, said in a statement.
"It is a serious concern in an already fragile region."
($1 = 0.8824 euros)
(Editing by Belinda Goldsmith)