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Sound alarm bells over forced repatriation

The crises that create mass displacement often grab the headlines. War and genocide and the consequent exile of people have a hard sell. More hidden, however, is the way in which displacement ends, long after the drama of flight is over.

One such hidden ending is taking place in Tanzania and Burundi, as refugees who fled to Tanzania in the aftermath of violence in Burundi in 1972 are facing renewed trauma as moves are made to end their exile. On the plus side, they are being offered a choice between returning to Burundi or staying in Tanzania and applying for citizenship. On the downside, research has shown that in practice neither option is really the complete solution it claims to be.

So what’s the problem?

Recent research carried out by International Refugee Rights Initiative (IRRI) in conjunction with a Burundi-based NGO, Rema Ministries, has shown that those who are returning after almost four decades in exile are facing terrible problems:
promises of assistance made in Tanzania are more often than not being delivered on; they are struggling to reclaim their land and are left in terrible poverty in the meantime; and their children are struggling at school in a language they do not speak.

At the same time, people are struggling to genuinely feel Burundian once more. Refugees are being offered a choice of repatriation or naturalisation. However, recent research carried out by IRRI in conjunction with the Centre for the Study of Forced Migration, University of Dar es Salaam, shows two fundamental problems in relation to those who have opted for the latter.

First, it is unclear whether, in reality, the majority of applications will be accepted. And second, receiving naturalisation certificates is allegedly contingent upon current refugees re-locating from the place that has been their home for the past four decades.

The reasons given for this forced relocation are primarily twofold: that the regions hosting refugees face a shortage of land; and that naturalised refugees should not be allowed to live too close to the borders as this will present a security risk. Of course, linked to this argument is the fact that if they are not dispersed around Tanzania they might create a strong enclave in local elections – supposedly a “threat” to government. 

However, this somewhat perverse logic can be challenged in several ways: first, it is precisely because land is a critical issue in Tanzania generally that wide scale relocation needs to be reconsidered. Second, any forced relocation will violate the rights of the naturalised: although governments can relocate citizens in certain circumstances, these are highly restricted in international law.

To follow a grant of nationality immediately with severe restrictions on movement risks not only a violation of rights, but effectively creates different classes of citizenship. Third, it is clear that the logistics for relocating approximately 190,000 newly naturalised Tanzanians (assuming that the majority are successful in their applications) could prove disastrous.

This is not a problem that cash alone can resolve and serious questions remain regarding both the motivation behind relocating this group of refugees, and the process itself. 

Meanwhile, another group of refugees, those who fled in the 1990s, have been the subject of a massive repatriation effort, conducted by the progressive closure of camps. These refugees have been forced to either return to Burundi or move to a camp that is still open.

Although UNHCR’s official line is that they will not endorse forced repatriation, it is hard to see where the line has been drawn in this instance: surely closing down camps and squeezing out people’s ability to survive amounts to forcing them to leave?

The imposition of prohibitive measures – such as not being allowed to cultivate – has created a situation of fear. It is easy to establish the interests of both Tanzania and Burundia, as well as the international regime in all of this.

Tanzania does not want any more refugees after decades of hosting millions. Burundi is treading a fine line between encouraging its citizens to return yet dealing with a chronic land shortage and inheriting the legacy of unfair re-distribution of land carried out by previous governments.

The international regime does not want to keep maintaining expensive refugee camps, which have become passé in a context of donor fatigue. The problem is that at the heart of these political agendas are individuals who are struggling to create a future for themselves and their families.

And like so many repatriation efforts in the past, there is a chronic lack of independent monitoring of the process. So this already vulnerable population is becoming increasingly vulnerable, and exile, with all its alienation and uncertainty, might begin to seem attractive to many. In a region that is dogged by cyclical patterns of violence, often rooted in past injustices, surely warning bells should be sounding?

The author is a Senior Researcher for International Refugee Rights Initiative

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