Tanzania, where refugees are no longer welcome

Yasmine Coljin, in Tanzania
11 Décembre 2013

Tanzania’s status as a haven of peace in East Africa has resulted in a massive refugee influx over the years, which has now resulted in political turmoil and the expulsion of thousands. For over 4 decades, Tanzania has hosted one of the largest refugee populations in Africa, but the tides are turning as thousands are forced back across the country’s borders.

Credits -- Carine Frenk
Credits -- Carine Frenk
In a region frequently perturbed by economic crises and political violence, Tanzania has always been a haven of relative peace. Since its unusually peaceful independence from British rule in 1961, Tanzania has had its fair share of difficulties. Yet, from the 1980s onwards its GDP per capita and overall level of development has been steadily on the rise while poverty has been declining. This stability has served as a magnetic pull, drawing in thousands of those no longer welcome in their home countries. Historically, Tanzania is no stranger to refugees. In 1994, they fled in from neighbour Rwanda, seeking to escape the horrors of the genocide. The year before, over one million Burundians sought shelter from growing political unrest and violence that had begun to take root as an aspect of daily life. And a steady flow of refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo continues to trickle in.

This extensive period of an open-arms policy, has ground to an abrupt end. According to UNHCR, in the last month alone, Tanzania has expelled around 30,000 Burundians across its borders. It appears that the Tanzanian government has reached a breaking point and is no longer willing to provide for the circa 254,000 refugees within its borders.

From one “home” to another

For many, the growing tendency to turn the nation into a “refugee-free-zone” comes as an unwelcome surprise. Hundreds of thousands of refugees find themselves lost in the administrative web that determines their legal status. In a recent press release, the Ministry of Home Affairs, in co-ordination with UNHCR stated that not a single registered refugee had been forced out of Tanzania in the current purge taking place. Though this may be true, for those without registered refugee or asylum-seeker status, the future remains unclear. Many of these illegal immigrants have been residing in Tanzania for over a decade, have built lives and no longer have anything to return to in their now inappropriately titled “home” countries.

In the Northwestern Kagera District, police round-ups have amplified in recent months. Patrol-cars drive through the countryside picking-up those suspected of being illegal immigrants. They’re kept for questioning and, if lucky, released. If the odds aren’t in their favour, however, deportation is on the menu. Such uncertainty has led many immigrants to lie about their nationality. Although French-sounding names are frequently a give-away of Rwandese or Burundian background, it is not uncommon for people to lie extensively, even to their employers, insisting that they are Tanzanian nationals. And as long as papers aren’t asked for and the police kept at bay, their Tanzanian lives of normalcy are allowed to live to see another day.

Daily Insecurities

Jacques is a friendly gardener with a penchant for flowery shirts and has a face that always sports a cheeky grin that says he probably ate the last cookie. Together with his wife, he supports his 4 lovely children, attends church every Sunday and spends the rest of the weekend lazing in front of the television. Every day, he is forced to lie about where he’s from. He claims to be Tanzanian, yet has been rounded-up by police on multiple occasions, accused of being Burundian. For now, he lives his lie and prays that he will not have to join the waves of countrymen being flushed out of Tanzania.

Florida is one of the luckier ones. In 1994, she escaped the Rwandan genocide and received official refugee status in Tanzania. Although she had to abandon her relatives to an uncertain fate, she is now thriving. Mother of 3, homeowner, and entrepreneur, Florida contributing to Tanzania’s growing economy. She serves as a community leader to Tanzanian women, and lightens every mood with her persistently cheery demeanour. Most would say, Tanzania is lucky to have her.

Tensions rise and hospitality fades

The Burundian government may insist that safety is no longer an issue, but violence remains prevalent, and it is understandable that refugees (registered or not) are wary of returning. With entire livelihoods at stake, weaving a web of lies seems the lesser of two evils. For Jacques, the future is unclear, but for Florida too. Tanzania’s economy may be fairly stable, but political and religious tensions between the predominantly Christian mainland and the largely Muslim Zanzibar don’t bode well for lasting calm. If these issues start to ripple the otherwise smooth surface of Tanzanian politics, the government may be more likely to start repatriating large numbers of refugees, uprooting all those who finally thought to have found home.

*Names have been changed due to privacy reasons.