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Q&A: UNHCR in pursuit of durable solutions for refugees in Tanzania

News Stories, 10 October 2008

© UNHCR/M.Mambo
UNHCR Representative Yacoub El Hillo (right) with Tanzanian Home Affairs Minister Lawrence Masha at a World Refugee Day event in Dar Es Salaam earlier this year.

DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania, October 10 (UNHCR) UNHCR Representative in Tanzania Yacoub El Hillo has helped uprooted people around the world during his long career with the refugee agency. The Sudanese national has been in Geneva to attend the annual meeting of UNHCR's governing Executive Committee (ExCom) and explain how his office, working closely with the Tanzanian government, has been working to find durable solutions, including repatriation, resettlement and local integration for tens of thousands of refugees, mostly from Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). This year has been a particularly fruitful and busy one, with UNHCR finding dignified and durable solutions for more than 94,000 refugees to date. He talked recently in Dar Es Salaam with UNHCR External Relations Officer Eveline Wolfcarius about the work of his office. Excerpts from the interview:

What is the current refugee situation in Tanzania?

For decades, Tanzania has hosted one of the world's largest refugee populations. The number of people in refugee camps topped 700,000 as recently as the year 2000. Today, thanks to active [UNHCR] voluntary repatriation programmes, that population has fallen dramatically. As a result, the Tanzanian government and UNHCR are gradually closing and consolidating the camps, while protecting and assisting the remaining 134,000 refugees.

At the start of 2007, UNHCR was running 11 refugee camps in north-western Tanzania. Today, just four are left all in the Kigoma region. In June this year, the Lukole camp for Burundian refugees was closed; a move which made the Kagera region ... free of refugee camps for the first time in over 15 years. In addition, more than 200,000 refugees who fled from Burundi in 1972 live in three self-sufficient so-called "old settlements," and there is also one settlement where [some 1,500] Somali refugees live.

How has UNHCR's work in Tanzania changed in recent years?

UNHCR Tanzania has made an important transition from a relatively stable care-and-maintenance operation to a dynamic operation which aims to find a dignified solution for each refugee. To attain that goal, all three durable solutions are used.

For the great majority of the camp-based refugees, the solution lies in voluntary repatriation. More than 353,000 Burundian and 60,000 Congolese camp refugees have been assisted to return home [by UNHCR] from the camps since 2002 and 2005 respectively.

As Tanzania's President [Jakaya Mrisho] Kikwete stated at last year's annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly: "The return of refugees to their country of origin is a sovereign right which should not be denied. It is the ultimate testimony and guarantee of the peace so attained." But peace alone is not a sufficient incentive to return. Several UNHCR initiatives have helped returnees restart their lives back home, such as food assistance for six months [compared to the previous three months] and a cash grant of US$45 for refugees returning to Burundi.

The UNHCR office also uses resettlement as a strategic solution for a small number of camp-based refugees. The resettlement of 1972 Burundian refugees will soon come to a close with more than 7,000 refugees having departed for the United States since May 2007.

In March this year, UNHCR launched an unprecedented durable solutions programme for the remaining 218,000 Burundians who fled their country in 1972 and have since lived in three self-sufficient settlements in western Tanzania. Through voluntary repatriation and local integration via naturalization, UNHCR and the international community are supporting the Tanzanian government to end this refugee situation, one of the most protracted in the world.

Furthermore, a small group of Somali Bantus in Chogo settlement are being granted Tanzanian citizenship and allowed to settle permanently in the Tanga region. In conclusion, more than 94,000 refugees have found durable solutions so far this year. This achievement would not have been possible without the excellent cooperation between the Tanzanian authorities and UNHCR.

How closely does UNHCR cooperate with the Tanzanian government?

UNHCR Tanzania enjoys a very close collaboration with the government, especially with Home Affairs Minister Lawrence Masha and his staff. This cooperation has been crucial for the progress achieved in pursuit of all three durable solutions. It has been particularly important in addressing the situation of the 1972 Burundian refugees in Rukwa and Tabora regions.

Minister Masha, addressing the ExCom meeting earlier this week, thanked the High Commissioner [for Refugees António Guterres] and the international community for the support they have shown in attaining durable solutions.

Tell us a bit more about the 1972 Burundian refugees caseload

In a historic move in mid-2007, Tanzania declared its readiness to work with UNHCR and the international community to realize dignified solutions to the group of Burundian refugees from 1972 hosted in the three old settlements. A two-year strategy was designed to assist the return of more than 46,000 of them and locally integrate a further 172,000, who had expressed their desire to remain in Tanzania.

In a noble act of humanity, the government offered these refugees the right to apply for citizenship in accordance with Tanzania's laws and procedures. The voluntary repatriation and naturalization processes are in full swing, with some 20,000 refugees now back home and 136,000 having applied for Tanzanian citizenship since the exercise was launched in March 2008. A thorough screening process by the Tanzanian authorities is under way to ensure conformity with the established criteria of naturalization. The programme relies heavily on support from donors.

What is the way forward for UNHCR in Tanzania?

For the old settlements comprehensive solutions strategy, the attention is now beginning to shift to the final stage: helping those who will be naturalized to finally integrate in Tanzania. Work on this local integration pillar has begun, but greater support will soon be needed as the people begin their move out of the old settlements and into their new lives. Together, Tanzania, UNHCR and the international community can ensure that, with quick impact initiatives, this third pillar of local integration is as successful as the repatriation and naturalization pillars.

In north-western Tanzania, with the dramatic reduction of the refugee population, UNHCR will continue to work closely with the [former] refugee-hosting communities to mitigate the negative consequences that could result from the withdrawal of humanitarian support. In 2008, our office played a catalytic role in preparing the UN's "Delivering as One" joint programme Managing Transition from Humanitarian Assistance to Sustainable Development in North-Western Tanzania. The US$10.8 million programme, benefiting local communities, will focus on health and education.

Finally, while the refugee operation is scaling down, mixed migration flows into and through the country are increasing. This year, the office has started discussions with the Ministry of Home Affairs and other stakeholders to address issues related to managing such population flows through the Ministerial Task Force on Irregular Migration.




Durable Solutions

Voluntary repatriation, local integration, resettlement, the three key solutions.

Finding a Home on Ancestral Land

Somali Bantu refugees gaining citizenship in Tanzania

The Nansen Refugee Award 2005

Burundian humanitarian worker Maggy Barankitse received the 2005 Nansen Refugee Award for her tireless work on behalf of children affected by war, poverty and disease. The Nansen medal was presented at a grand ceremony in Brussels by H.R.H. Princess Mathilde of Belgium and UN Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees Wendy Chamberlin.

Accepting the award, Barankitse said her work was inspired by one single goal: peace. "Accept your fellow man, sit down together, make this world a world of brothers and sisters," she said. "Nothing resists love, that's the message that I want to spread."

Sponsored by UNHCR corporate partner Microsoft, the ceremony and reception at Concert Noble was also attended by Belgium's Minister for Development Co-operation Armand De Decker, European Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid Louis Michel, renowned Burundian singer Khadja Nin, Congolese refugee and comedian Pie Tshibanda, and French singer and UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Julien Clerc. Among others.

The Nansen Refugee Award 2005

A fresh start; Burundian former refugees begin a new chapter in their lives

Since the end of October more than 26,000 Burundian former refugees have been assisted by UNHCR and its partners to return home from the Mtabila camp in northwest Tanzania. The operation is organized with the Government of Tanzania to help some 35,500 Burundian former refugees go back to Burundi by the end of 2012, when the Mtabila camp officially closes.

Refugee status for most Burundians in Tanzania formally ended in August following individual interviews to assess remaining protection needs. A total of 2,715 people will continue to be hosted as refugees in Tanzania, while the rest, the last of a population of refugees who left Burundi some 20 years ago, must return home. This is not an easy move after having spent most of your life -- and sometimes all of it -- in exile.

While awaiting their turn to join one of the daily convoys to bring them home, Burundian former refugees are preparing themselves for a fresh start…

A fresh start; Burundian former refugees begin a new chapter in their lives

Photo Gallery: The Challenge of Forced Displacement in Africa

Africa is the continent most affected by the tragedy of forced displacement. While millions of refugees were able to return to Angola, Burundi, Liberia, Rwanda and South Sudan over the last 15 years, the numbers of internally displaced people continued to grow. At the beginning of 2009, in addition to some 2.3 million refugees, an estimated 11.6 million people were internally displaced by conflict in Africa.

To address forced displacement on the continent, the African Union is organizing a special summit on refugees, returnees and internally displaced people from October 19-23 in the Ugandan capital, Kampala. Heads of state and government will look at the challenges and at ways to find solutions to forced displacement. They are also expected to adopt a Convention for the protection and assistance of internally displaced people (IDP) in Africa, which would be the first legally binding instrument on internal displacement with a continental scope. This photo gallery looks at some of the forcibly displaced around Africa, many of whom are helped by UNHCR.

Photo Gallery: The Challenge of Forced Displacement in Africa

Tanzania: Fleeing Burundi, Refugees Seek SafetyPlay video

Tanzania: Fleeing Burundi, Refugees Seek Safety

He used to fix broken bicycles in Burundi, but as political troubles and killings mounted Nestor Kamza decided to flee. In search of safety he and his family walked non-stop for 24-hours until they reached Tanzania. His family is among more than 100,000 people who have fled from political violence in Burundi and arrived in the Nyarugusu camp which has almost tripled in size. To alleviate overcrowding in the camp, UNHCR and its partners have planned to open three new camps and have started moving tens of thousands of Burundian refugees to a new, less congested, home
Tanzania: Setting Sail to SafetyPlay video

Tanzania: Setting Sail to Safety

More than 60,000 Burundian refugees have arrived in Tanzania since the beginning of May. On the shores of Lake Tanganyika, hundreds board a ferry to Kigoma, Tanzania, before continuing to Nyaragusu camp.
Rwanda: Flight from BurundiPlay video

Rwanda: Flight from Burundi

In recent weeks, the number of Burundian refugees crossing into Rwanda has increased significantly. According to the Government of Rwanda, since the beginning of April, 25,004 Burundians, mostly women and children, have fled to Rwanda. Many said they had experienced intimidation and threats of violence linked to the upcoming elections.