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Tanzania has taken ‘the bold and commendable decision to offer citizenship to 162,000 Burundian refugees who fled their country in 1972’, writes Lucy Hovil. But, warns Hovil, it seems premature to refer to the refugees as ‘citizens’, as recent telephone interviews with them suggest that they are ‘neither allowed freedom of movement, nor the security of having the necessary and vital documentation to prove their new status’.

It is rare for host countries to offer refugees citizenship, especially in a context such as the Great Lakes region where millions have been displaced. Instead, most governments wait for circumstances to change so that refugees can go back to their home country.

Tanzania, however, has taken the bold and commendable decision to offer citizenship to 162,000 Burundian refugees who fled their country in 1972 and who have since been living as refugees in Tanzania. While it is important not to detract from the level of generosity that this demonstrates, the process itself has revealed a fundamental disjuncture between rhetoric and reality. Only when the gap between the two has substantially reduced, it is argued, can it be judged a success.

First, official UN reports claim that the refugees have been granted citizenship. Yet recent phone interviews with those who have apparently just received citizenship show that they have not been given their certificates of citizenship and have been told not to leave the settlements in which they are living. The reason for this, they are told, is that their citizenship status is actually contingent upon them being relocated to other areas of Tanzania. Only when they are moved will they get their certificates. To refer to them as citizens seems somewhat premature given that these ‘Tanzanians’ are neither allowed freedom of movement, nor the security of having the necessary and vital documentation to prove their new status.

These former refugees have spent the past 38 years cultivating the land kindly provided to them by the government and have built up strong communities with those around them – not least because they have lacked freedom of movement so have been unable to integrate freely with Tanzanians living in the surrounding areas. The government of Tanzania is free to encourage movement, but as Tanzanian citizens they have the right to choose where they want to live and can only be moved forcibly in narrowly circumscribed circumstances. They certainly should not have to undergo what essentially amounts to another displacement. In addition to potentially violating their rights as citizens of the country, such movement will also undermine their economic self-sufficiency – which is concerning in a country where livelihoods are already precarious. Previous research has shown that this group are hugely concerned about the social, cultural and economic viability of being relocated across the country. For instance, moving them away from the place that has been their “home” for the past 38 years means they will lose their extended family connections and their current fixed assets (such as their houses). Yet they are caught: without their certificates, they are unable to access their rights as Tanzanian citizens, including the acquisition of business licenses, equal access to secondary education and medical treatment (for more information see Going Home or Staying Home).

Furthermore, history has shown that public statements about the granting of citizenship do not always translate into full citizenship for individuals. Rwandan refugees who were offered mass naturalisation by the Tanzanian government in the late 1970s with a similar public profile were still waiting ten years later for their certificates, despite having been “naturalised”. At the end of the day, the proof of the success of this exercise is not in the declaration that these former refugees are now Tanzanian citizens, but in ensuring the realisation of the rights attached to citizenship.

Second, there is concern about what will happen to those whose application for naturalisation is rejected. Currently there appears to be no system for informing those whose applications are unsuccessful, and there is no understanding of what will happen to them. As previously documented by the International Refugee Rights Initiative, many of those who missed the opportunity to apply for naturalisation did so as a result of basic administrative errors. Yet with no process for appeal in place, the future for those who are not accepted remains unknown and needs to be clarified urgently.

The third concern relates to the situation of other Burundian refugees living in Tanzania who have not been included in the naturalisation process, many of whom are refugees who fled Burundi in the 1990s and are therefore not being considered eligible. These refugees fall into two main categories: first, 36,000 refugees living in the last remaining camp for Burundian refugees, Mtabila, who are coming under intense pressure to return to Burundi regardless of whether or not they have legitimate concerns about repatriating; and second, self-settled refugees (or irregular movers as they are known officially) who have fallen off the official radar. In the case of the latter, there has been some indication that those in this group who fled in 1972 might be offered the option of applying for citizenship. However, uncertainty remains.

Of specific concern is the fact that conditions in Mtabila camp have deteriorated rapidly over the last year. Schools have been closed for months leaving more than 12,000 children without education, income-generating activities have been officially suspended, and even going to church was no allowed until recently when prayers were allowed to resume under strict conditions. Only basic medical and relief services are still being provided – as one refugee put it grimly, “only services to keep refugees from dying are still being given.” With such considerable push factors, questions have to be asked as to why this group of refugees is not returning to Burundi where, surely, life could not be any worse? Yet many continue to insist that they fear individual persecution if they return to Burundi (see I Don’t Know Where to Go). Burundi is making progress in its painful transition out of decades of violence and conflict towards stability. Yet not surprisingly, numerous problems remain unresolved, not least the massive deficit of justice in the country and enormous problems relating to the re-acquisition of land (see Two People Cannot Wear the Same Pair of Shoes). The situation in Mtabila, therefore, represents something of a standoff between a government that refuses to do anything that might encourage them to stay, and a group of refugees who stubbornly refuse to return. But it is a deadlock that cannot be allowed to continue to serve as an excuse for violations of the rights of the displaced.

So what is the outlook for Burundian refugees in Tanzania? For those in Mtabila camp, it is imperative that protection continues to be offered to this group of refugees. The cessation clause in the 1951 Refugee Convention – which would effectively rescind refugee status for Burundians living in Tanzania – has not been applied. Even if it were to be applied, refugees must have an opportunity to make an individual case for continued protection. The government must guarantee that refugees are not forcibly returned and alternative solutions are sought. Likewise the government needs to be clear about the situation for self-settled refugees.

For those in the midst of the current naturalisation process, it is vital that successful applicants receive their citizenship certificates and are not forced to move from the settlement. In addition, the Tanzanian government, along with UNHCR, needs to be far more transparent and accurate in how it is portraying the situation. We hope that the time will come when the international community – and Tanzania’s new citizens – can genuinely congratulate and thank the government for offering this group the opportunity of citizenship and all the rights which are bound up in that. But in the meantime, rhetoric needs to be translated into a reality that allows these new Tanzanians to fully realise their rights as full citizens.


* Dr Lucy Hovil is a senior researcher at the International Refugee Rights Initiative.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.