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Refugees Magazine Issue 110 (Crisis in the Great Lakes) - A Change of Direction for Tanzania

Refugees Magazine Issue 110 (Crisis in the Great Lakes) - A Change of Direction for Tanzania
Refugees (110, IV - 1997)

1 December 1997
Changing direction.

For decades the East African country warmly welcomed refugees from across the continent. But the Great Lakes crisis forced the government in Dar es Salaam to rethink its asylum policy.

By Augustine Mahiga

When unknown gunmen attacked a refugee camp in northern Burundi in 1995, 50,000 terrified Rwandan refugees and local Burundis fled towards neighbouring Tanzania and safety. What happened next was unprecedented. Rather than welcoming them as the country had regularly done in the past, Dar Es Salaam deployed the army, closed its border and effectively told the refugees to stay away. The country was already sheltering more than a half million refugees and it had simply had enough. It was suffering 'host country fatigue.'

The move caused widespread dismay in the humanitarian world. Tanzania may be one of the world's poorest nations economically, but until that border incident it had gained a global reputation for its generosity towards the downtrodden. The then President Julius Nyerere received UNHCR's Nansen Medal in 1983 for Tanzania's exemplary record and at the ceremony he offered any refugee facing permanent exile Tanzanian citizenship and generous grants of land. Thousands accepted.

Tanzania's asylum policy since independence was heavily influenced by foreign and domestic concerns including its support for liberation causes in Southern Africa; continental solidarity; and Tanzania's homegrown policy of Ujamaa and Self Reliance. Thus, while the country received refugees from Burundi and Rwanda on purely humanitarian grounds, those fleeing wars of liberation were also accepted as an act of political solidarity with the oppressed.


When Southern Africa's liberation wars and Mozambique's civil conflict ended, refugees from those regions repatriated. Tanzania saw its generosity demonstrably rewarded. By contrast, a solution for Rwandans and Burundis remained elusive and new waves of refugees continued to arrive. This apparently unending crisis began to fuel Tanzanian frustrations.

Ujamaa' also enriched traditional African generosity towards refugees in those early days and Tanzania provided the displaced not only with a safe refuge but also a dignified existence. UNHCR staff member Yefime Zarjevski wrote of Ujamaa in his book Future Preserved: 'The belief that the main wealth of a country is in its people ... led to the acceptance of refugees and to ... the determination to devote the same efforts to them as to nationals.' The pinnacle of that policy was reached with Nyerere's Nansen Medal.

This began to change in the 1990s. A multi-party political system, a market economy and a more open press replaced Ujamaa and the one-party state. Political leaders and opposition groups became increasingly critical of Tanzania's open-door refugee policy. Land became highly-prized.

Then an estimated 500,000 Rwandans poured across the border to escape the 1994 genocide. Tanzania was overwhelmed. Suspected criminals, killers and former Rwandan soldiers mingled with genuine refugees. Law and order in refugee camps and the surrounding countryside deteriorated precipitously. The local population was outnumbered 3-to-1 by refugees. They watched with increasing frustration as large tracts of forest, rivers and arable land were destroyed.

The Rwandans' arrival and changing political, economic and social trends triggered a shift in Tanzania's overall asylum policy and the 1995 border closure became the most obvious indication of this U-turn.

Tanzania's deputy Home Affairs Minister E. Mwambulukutu spelled out the new approach in a speech last year when he said: 'Hosting refugees has become a heavier and more painful burden than ever before to countries of asylum like Tanzania. Protecting and assisting refugees has brought new risks to national security, exacerbated tensions between states and caused extensive damage to the environment ... '

He noted that tensions had risen between Tanzania and Burundi over refugee issues and insisted that Dar Es Salaam would never allow the security situation to deteriorate as it had done in eastern Zaire because of the presence of refugees. Domestically, he said, Tanzanians were becoming restless with so many refugees and a 'resentful local population may turn hostile to refugees and even oppose local integration as a solution.'

While such policy statements obviously signal 'host country fatigue' Tanzania has nevertheless underlined repeatedly that it will continue to respect its humanitarian obligations. It currently continues to host around 330,000 refugees - the largest number in any East African country.

It is essential that state responsibility should not be allowed to erode because of lack of resources to support asylum and redress the collateral damage of hosting refugees. The international community must become more involved with regional nations in addressing root causes of refugee flight, even if that includes efforts to resolve domestic conflicts.

UNHCR's policy of mobilising resources for refugee affected areas and populations should be an integral part of all programmes from the start of any new influx. In Tanzania, this totalled $7 million. In addition, UNHCR has encouraged bilateral assistance for expanded humanitarian programmes.

It is important to demonstrate that humanitarian principles are compatible with legitimate state interests. This issue goes beyond resource mobilisation for refugee programmes to include regular consultation between governments and humanitarian organizations.

The democratisation process in countries like Tanzania should provide an opportunity to institutionalise all human rights, including asylum. However, it should also be recognized that Minister Mwambulukutu's speech and the concerns he expressed, could have been delivered virtually verbatim by any developing country hosting significant numbers of refugees. It was a shot across the bows of the international community, signalling that the rules have changed and there are no easy options left.

Augustine Mahiga is deputy director of UNHCR's Great Lakes Unit in Geneva

Source: Refugees Magazine issue 110 (1997)