London - Children as young as 6 are fleeing political unrest in Burundi, travelling for days on foot without their parents and arriving in "unprecedented numbers" in refugee camps, Save the Children said on Saturday.
Many parents are staying behind to protect their homes from looting and possible destruction in Burundi's worst crisis since its ethnically charged civil war in 2005, while sending their children to what they hope is safety.
More than 2 300 children have fled Burundi separated from their families and often completely alone in the last six weeks, the children's charity said.
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"Already, the numbers of children arriving alone or separated from their families are unprecedented," said Save the Children's East Africa operations manager, Edwin Kuria.
President Pierre Nkurunziza's decision to seek a third term, despite a two-term limit under the constitution, has sparked almost daily protests in Burundi since April 26.
Long and difficult journey
As of June 5, more than 96 000 people had fled clashes between police and anti-government protesters, and made their way to Rwanda, Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania and Uganda, according to the UN refugee agency, UNHCR.
"Children as young as 6-years-old have arrived alone at the Mahama camp in Rwanda, exhausted and frightened," Kuria said in a statement.
"A three-year-old toddler got to the camp in the care of its 12-year-old sibling, they had made the long and difficult journey on their own. Many are arriving without shoes and with nothing but the clothes they are wearing."
According to the United Nations, nearly 60 percent of all newly arrived refugees in Rwanda are children.
Burundi's electoral body announced on Wednesday it had delayed planned local and parliamentary elections "until another date that is unknown" in response to an appeal from African leaders.
However, Save the Children said it feared more would flee the east African country as the risk of violence escalates in the run up to a presidential vote scheduled for June 26.
Ndayizeye, 16, who arrived in Rwanda with his younger brother told the aid agency they had no money for transport so they walked to Mahama refugee camp.
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"We eventually encountered a deep river where armed groups controlled the crossing. We had to build a makeshift raft and cross at night, praying that they didn't see us and attack us," he was quoted by Save the Children as saying.
"Mercifully, we made it intact."
On Monday, the United Nations released some $15m in emergency funds to help refugees in Rwanda, and also Tanzania, where a cholera outbreak has killed more than 30 people and infected thousands more.
Save the Children said refugee camps in both countries were already overcrowded.
In Rwanda, refugees were queuing for up to six hours for water and in Tanzania, the demand for antenatal consultations had increased sixfold, it said.