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Who talks about refugees in Tanzania, and what do they say?

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Who talks about refugees in Tanzania, and what do they say?

Sunday, November 10, 2019

 

 

In late 2018, Tanzania hosted 330,755 refugees and asylum-seekers divided between Burundi (245,9641), The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) (84,170) and 15 other nationalities (621). Majority of these refugees are accommodated in the three refugee camps of Nyarugusu, Nduta and Mtendeli, all situated along the murram road departing Kigoma north on the border to Burundi. The area is remote in terms of central power centres of Tanzania, and Kigoma Region is not well developed in terms of infrastructure and public services. The refugees are thus easily physically absent to the majority of Tanzanians as well as absent in news.

 

Absence in newspapers or social media, however, does not mean absence of opinion, and I am interested in what common people outside the international humanitarian institutions say and think.* Within the recent year I have tweeted regularly about refugees in Tanzania with a particular interest in where/how refugees are debated on "public agenda" among Tanzanians. I have not done a structured analysis but my impression is that most tweets concerning refugees in Tanzania typically appear to concentrate on humanitarian institutions or international media, and often international media relies on news and data from humanitarian institutions. 

 

A recent example from 6 October 2019 is the question of repatriation of Burundian refugees. Here, international media evidently all draw on data from UNHCR - versus interviewing primary sources on the ground such as i.e. refugees. Odd thing is how various media has applied quite different numbers concerning the amount of refugees hosted by Tanzania:

 

 

 

On 7 November 2019, I questioned the shift - gradually happening over 40 years - in Tanzania's refugee regime from positive to negative, pointing to how the reception of Burundian refugeees in the 1970s were welcomed as contributors by President Nyerere and his ideological thoughts on inclusive pan-africanism and ujamaa (Swahili for "familyhood") till present where refugees are seen as a threat to security. The latter, a situation not unique to Tanzania, a situation we are facing in Europe, too. However, President Nyerere's approach in the 70s was unique, and made Tanzania stand out. The attitude towards refugees changed, though.

 

According to the "Evaluation of the protracted refugee situation (PRS) for Burundians in Tanzania" (2010) "Researchers find that Tanzanian refugee policies generally fall into three distinct periods from Independence to the present. In the first period, from 1962 to 1985, the refugee policies were integral to the Pan-African policies spearheaded by President Nyerere. The second period came with the economic disarray and the end of Nyerere’s presidency in 1985 and runs until 1995. Scarcity of resources is said to be one important factor leading to more restrictive refugee policies. This was the political situation, which met almost one million refugees, who came to Tanzania in the early 1990s. The third period started in 1996, when the Government closed its border with Burundi and also announced that all Rwandan refugees should leave the country by the end of that year. As a result the number of refugees in Tanzania dropped considerably."

 

At the elections in 2005, Tanzania’s ruling party, Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) “pledged to make Tanzania “refugee-free” by 2010”, arguing with insecurity, bad influence and insufficient international aid. Unrest in May 2015 in Burundi however caused new influx of refugees to Tanzania pressing the refugee regime to reopen camps. Thus, in a period of 40 years refugees have gone from being valued as contributors to local development to unwanted dependants on humanitarian aid. A process which has strained relationships between neighbours and local communities as well as with the international community.

 

The responses to my tweet reflected this in a diverse and interesting way: Some tweets referred to the current situation on refugees in Tanzania with the harsh politics of President Magufuli and "current African governments". Simon Turner, associate professor at University of Copenhagen, pointed out in a tweet that the approach to refugees is far from new, but "Unfortunately, a trend since the 1990s". In "Under the gaze of the 'big nations': Refugees, rumours and the international community in Tanzania" (2004) Turner draws on field work in Lokule refugee camp in Tanzania (1997-98) with refugees who live “on the margins of Tanzania”, while they look towards the international community in Geneva, Washington and Brussels. A relationship which in the absence of a safe home and a distant Tanzanian host, becomes “imagined” providing paradoxes of mediated humanitarianism where “Refugees are at once hidden away in the Tanzanian bush while also being in the limelight of international attention”.

 

We, here in the global North, commonly construct ideas of refugees through mediated humanitarianism which tend to present refugees as “matters out of place”, as “someone who lacks”. This may lead to misunderstandings as it may make us to imagine that the refugees' local Tanzanian neighbours represent the normal, that they are fine. However, local Tanzanians may in reality not be fine, they may not even access as good health or education services as refugees in the camps.

 

Several tweets pointed to this problem - by either explaining that Tanzania has already done a lot, including supporting Southern African liberation movements in the 1960-70s during the decolonization of Africa which produced numerous refugee crises. That Tanzania is also poor; Helping refugees takes international colloboration; And why don't Europe take these refugees, including pointing out the problem of my European, colonial heritage:

 

"We helped a lot of Southern African countries we know what we reap from them, esp South Africa, you have a lot of aeroplanes take them to your country" 

 

"Tanzania has supported pan African liberation for so long, given so much and received little in return. Why not support Tanzania to help refugees rather than criticize it. There are material implications to providing refuge, and Tanzania is not a rich country.Why not contribute"

 

"You should advise European countries to take them because Tanzania is a developing country, so it is tough for blinds to lead one another."

 

"Wasn't your fore fathers partioned Africa no one would have facing such a thing!"

 

"We know that the issue of refugees resulted from your projects such as civil war and other related political instability that you are creating in African countries all those instability you are the source that's why you are trying to argue"

 

In 2019, 70 million people are forcibly displaced as a result of different types of crises. Majority of refugees (57%) originate from the Global South, and 80% of the world’s refugees live in exile in neighbouring countries. Researchers point to how media in the global North tends to support narratives of “successful refugee-hosting nations” in the Global South, and how such are useful for even opposing actors of European anti-immigration and pro-refugee liberals as well as the African refugee-hosts. Danish support to Tanzania has also applied a similar narrative by former Danish Ambassador to Tanzania who praised GoT’s efforts to host refugees though research, as explained above, has indicated more complexity. 

 

Pushing the positive narrative of African refugee hosts points to problems of lack of nuance considering the perspectives of the refugees, and to biased journalism when international journalists embed with humanitarian organisations and embassies, and while afflicted refugees are mediated internationally, refugees are rare(r) news in local Tanzanian media. Point is that international media provide only little, if anything, about humanitarianism and the refugee camps from the perspectives of the refugees, their neighbours and Tanzanian citizens. 

 

*) Kindly note I tweet mainly in English, which in this case means I have not included Swahili. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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PhD Student, MA in African Studies, journalist and former development worker. Heart tilted towards the Balkans & East Africa: Refugees, Peripheries, Imaginaries & Humanitarianism