Rwanda’s newest refugee camp is filling up fast as tens of thousands of people flee pre-election violence in neighboring Burundi, which experts say has the potential to destabilize a region already struggling with displacement on a massive scale.

The first convoy of 400 refugees arrived at the Mahama refugee camp in Rwanda just over two weeks ago. Now, there are more than 16,000 settled there, with more on the way.  

Roughly 1,500 people are coming in every day, after the United Nations refugee agency bought more buses as its reception centers became overcrowded last week. About 60 percent of the refugees are women and children, the agency, UNHCR, said.


Mahama Refugee Camp, Rwanda In just two weeks, more than 16,000 people have arrived at a new refugee camp in Rwanda as they flee pre-election violence in Burundi. Photo: Courtesy of Challiss McDonough/WFP

Since the middle of April, more than 50,000 people have fled Burundi to neighboring Rwanda, Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the UNHCR said Friday.

Last week, the Burundian constitutional court ruled that the current president, Pierre Nkurunziza, is eligible to run for a third term, which is illegal under the country’s constitution. The move has sparked a sharp increase in protests around the capital city of Bujumbura that have left more than 16 people dead.

Burundi Protests Burundians barricade a road in Bujumbura Friday, May 8, 2015, as they protest President Pierre Nkurunziza's intention to run for a third term. Photo: Reuters/Jean Pierre Aime Harerimana

Nkurunziza officially registered his candidacy Friday, despite a stern warning from the African Union that elections may no longer be possible amid the chaos.

“It is vital too that borders remain open, and we are grateful to commitments in this regard by neighboring countries and for the support that host communities are giving to the refugees,” UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards told reporters in Geneva Friday.

According to the United Nations, there are currently 25,004 Burundian refugees in Rwanda, 17,696 in Tanzania and 7,661 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

“Some decided to leave as a precautionary measure, having experienced previous cycles of violence. There are also reports of people selling their properties before leaving the country -- possibly indicating anticipation of prolonged insecurity,” Edwards said.

These recent developments, Edwards said, have the potential to “undo some of the most promising developments in recent refugee history in Africa.”

Burundi is still recovering from a devastating ethnic conflict that left hundreds of thousands dead and more fleeing for their lives. Since it ended in 2005 international organizations and aid groups have worked for the past decade on solutions for the displaced people, including one of the world’s largest voluntary return programs.