Refugee Rights News
Volume 4, Issue 3
Seeking Durable Solutions for Burundian Refugees in Tanzania
The Tanzanian government recently announced a major drive to address the situation of long-staying Burundian refugees in the country. This initiative aims to resolve the situation of Burundian refugees who have been in the country since fleeing widespread violence in Burundi in 1972. The government of Tanzania has offered citizenship to those who wish to remain and is working with UNHCR to organize repatriation for those who do not.
This initiative, therefore, presents a unique opportunity to explore the ways in which issues of identity impact the choices that refugees make. In an effort to understand these decision making processes, the International Refugee Rights Initiative (IRRI) is collaborating with the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) and the Centre for the Study of Forced Migration (CSFM) at the University of Dar es Salaam to conduct field based research amongst both camp-based and self-settled refugees in this group.
This research is to be conducted in the framework of a broader project undertaken by IRRI and the SSRC to explore the linkages between refugee situations and conflicts over identity. Disputes over group and national membership have been at the core of many of the regions’ conflicts. As a result, targeted populations have been forcibly displaced from their homes, social networks, and governmental protection, and have been forced to seek refuge within their own countries and across borders. Even in displacement, the ability of refugees and internally displaced persons to integrate is often determined by understandings of identity, which influence whether national and local government authorities and ordinary people are welcoming or hostile.
Burundian refugees in Tanzania
Burundian refugees who arrived in Tanzania in the early 1970s, as distinct from those who fled later (primarily in the 1990s), are typically referred to as the “1972 caseload.” They have now been officially living in settlement villages for more than 30 years. The 1972 refugees are currently being considered as a distinct caseload by the Government of Tanzania and UNHCR. Their situation is different from that of other Burundian refugees because of the length of time spent outside Burundi (the majority were, in fact, born in Tanzania and have never been to Burundi), the fact that it may be more difficult for them to recover land and other property in Burundi given the length of their exile and due to their economic benefit to Tanzania.
As UNHCR representatives have pointed out, the current initiative to find durable solutions for this group of refugees is unique because it has combined all three durable solutions (local integration, repatriation and resettlement) operating simultaneously. Nevertheless, while a number of refugees from this group were approved for resettlement to third countries, this option will be open only to a small number of refugees (8,500 have been resettled to the US). In practice, therefore, refugees currently have a choice between repatriating back to Burundi, or remaining in Tanzania and accepting naturalization, with a proposed deadline of November 2008 for the closure of the settlements. The study will focus both on refugees living in settlements and on self-settled refugees, the latter of whom appear to be largely excluded from this current process.
The discussion surrounding durable solutions for this group of Burundian refugees who have remained in exile for over 30 years touches on questions of citizenship and belonging, both with regard to root causes of flight and in relation to their prospects of achieving integration into a stable national belonging and identity–whether back in Burundi or in Tanzania. Critical to this discussion is understanding the processes by which refugees define belonging and by which they are deciding whether to return or stay–and, indeed, the extent to which there is genuine choice involved. Specifically, within the paradigm of discussions on notions of belonging and the current and potential experience of citizenship, this pilot study asks about the specific dynamics of identity that are playing a key role in this decision-making process from the perspective of the refugees themselves. How does the refugees’ sense of national belonging relate to the choices they are making? To what extent are decisions based purely on pragmatics? What factors might prevent them from not only receiving or reclaiming citizenship but realizing the rights that should accompany citizenship? In other words, how durable are these durable solutions, all of which involve (re)claiming citizenship at some level?
Set against a legal framework that determines the rights of national citizenship and social customs of membership the refugees would retain, gain, or lose as a result of their choice of durable solution, field-based social science research will examine the cultural affiliations of the refugees and the role that these play in decision making. Most importantly, in a context in which refugees themselves are not being widely consulted regarding their future, field-based research will focus on the forced migrants themselves and will explore how they view their prospects for access to citizenship and membership regarding the different solutions.
Repatriation: a realistic option?
Among the 1972 group of refugees there is limited impetus to return: initial indications are that those who are opting for repatriation are mainly older refugees who were born in and have memory of Burundi. However, for those who do opt to return, a number of significant issues need to be considered regarding the durability of their repatriation and reintegration into Burundi. First, significant difficulties can be expected in relation to (re)accessing land: Burundi is the second most densely populated country in Africa and is overwhelmingly agricultural. Any return process will inevitably present considerable challenges for reclaiming land. Second, the political implications of Burundi’s violent history may impose considerable barriers to return and reintegration. Indeed, a Tanzanian government official told our researchers that the political implications of large-scale return are highlighted by the fact that the Burundian government is concerned about the potential for renewed conflict if all refugees were to return home, potentially destabilizing the country. Set in the context of a country going through a highly vulnerable process of transition – not least given a history of impunity for past wrongs – the long-term stability of Burundi remains a serious concern regarding the durability of return.
Thus, while UNHCR has made repatriation a priority, particularly for the 1990s refugees, it acknowledges that it may not be possible to successfully repatriate and reintegrate all refugees. In particular those displaced by violence in 1972 are deemed less likely to have sufficient material and cultural ties with Burundi to successfully return. This raises a number of interesting questions regarding the nature of citizenship: it implies that the recognized grounds for citizenship are linked primarily to socio-economic rather than cultural, political or legal dynamics.
Naturalization: what are the implications?
Perhaps not surprisingly, the majority of refugees have opted for naturalization according to a survey carried out by UNHCR. But it is important to understand how the receiving of Tanzanian citizenship is viewed by this group of refugees, not least in a context in which they will have to renounce their Burundian citizenship (dual nationality is not permitted under Tanzanian law, but is permitted under Burundian law). What does the receiving of Tanzanian citizenship mean in social, political and cultural terms? For instance while much has been made of the fact that Burundian refugees currently opting for naturalization speak Swahili, have followed the Tanzanian curriculum in school, and that many have never been to Burundi, it remains critical to ascertain how this relates to notions of their sense of national and local identity – both as individuals and as a group. Indeed, despite the emphasis on these markers of assimilation, it is clear that the government is anxious about the organizing potential of group affiliation as Hutu and as (former) refugees – reflected in the fact that they are planning to formally close the settlements. Refugees will be relocated elsewhere with the assumption that in the long term they will disperse.
In light of that, many questions remain regarding the way in which refugees will be received in areas of Tanzania where they move to settle. While local integration is expected to be easy within the Kigoma region (the main ethnic group in Kigoma, the Waha, have strong linguistic and cultural similarities with the Warundi people from Burundi), in other regions local integration is expected to pose a greater challenge. Furthermore, what, in reality, will by the dynamics in determining the ability of refugees to access land?
As we begin to explore some of these complex questions, the field-based research will be the first of a series of such studies which, in combination, will begin to generate new empirical understandings of specific cases of exclusion/inclusion, identify strategies and policies that will better protect the forcibly displaced in the region and begin to inform effective advocacy in the region, from the grassroots upwards.