GENEVA - More than 100,000 people from Burundi have fled to neighbouring countries since political violence that culminated in a foiled coup attempt this week erupted in April, the United Nations said Friday.
UN refugee agency spokeswoman Karin de Gruijl said nearly 70,200 people had fled to Tanzania, 26,300 to Rwanda and nearly 10,000 to the South Kivu region of the Democratic Republic of Congo since early last month.
The number was more than double the figure provided by UNHCR a week ago, with the number of refugees in Tanzania in particular showing a nearly four-fold rise since then.
The announcement came after an attempt to overthrow Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza ended in failure, with coup leaders detained or being forced to go on the run, ending uncertainty over who was in charge of the small, landlocked and poor nation.
The country has been gripped by political crisis over Nkurunziza's controversial bid to stand for re-election in June 26 polls.
De Gruijl said the increased unrest in the country had sent many fleeing to neighbouring Tanzania, which reopened its borders on May 4.
Risk of more instability
"In particular in Tanzania, numbers have risen very, very sharply over the last few days," de Gruijl said, pointing to numbers from local immigration authorities saying more than 50,000 Burundians were "living rough" on the shore of Lake Tanganyika in the small village of Kagunga.
"There are also reports of at least 10,000 people waiting to cross the border into Tanzania," she said.
UNHCR had begun noticing the sharp increase in the number of refugees fleeing into Tanzania on Wednesday, but de Gruijl told AFP it was "difficult to say" if the influx was linked to the failed coup.
The UN human rights office meanwhile expressed deep concern over the developments in Burundi over the past 48 hours.
"There is a clear risk that the instability may be prolonged or even made worse if there are violent reprisals in response to what happened over the last two days," spokesman Rupert Colville told reporters.
He also warned that the "instability and intimidation of civilians could result in a major humanitarian crisis or one even more major".
De Gruijl meanwhile said the soaring numbers of Burundians arriving in the tiny village of Kagunga had rendered living conditions there "extremely dire".
She said sanitary conditions were "very, very difficult," with a lack of clean drinking water, latrines and shelter, as well as overwhelmed health services.
The Tanzanian village, surrounded by a steep mountain range, is best accessible by boat, and UNHCR said it had chartered an old ferry to help shuttle Burundian refugees on to the western province of Kigoma, where the Nyanrugusu refugee camp is located.
"The ferry is over 100 years old, and it can carry up to 600 people at a time," she said, pointing out that the whole transfer process takes as long as 10 hours, since the ferry is too large to dock and people must be taken to shore by smaller boats.
More than 18,000 refugees have been moved to the refugee camp so far, de Gruijl said.
She said refugees were also continuing to arrive in Rwanda, but at a slower pace.
"Many of the refugees are reporting that they are being stopped from leaving the country," she said.