Blogpost: “I can’t be a citizen if I am still a refugee”

Published: 12 Apr 2013
By: Lucy Hovil

It is rare for countries to offer citizenship to groups of refugees, especially in the Great Lakes region where millions have been displaced. Instead, most governments wait for circumstances to change so that refugees can go back to their home country. In official refugee policy language, therefore, repatriation is typically favoured over local integration as the most desired “durable solution”.

In 2008, however, Tanzania challenged this trend. It took the bold and commendable decision to offer naturalisation to approximately 200,000 Burundian refugees who had fled their country in 1972 and had since been living as refugees in Tanzania. It was an offer that was unprecedented in scale not only in Tanzania, but across the globe. While some of this group of refugees opted to repatriate to Burundi, 162,256 took up the offer of applying for naturalisation.

However, recent research conducted by IRRI launched last week (“I can’t be a citizen if I am still a refugee.” Former Burundian refugees struggle to assert their new Tanzanian citizenship) has shown that this unprecedented offer has become increasingly caught up in the realities of implementation and realpolitik. While it is important not to detract from the level of generosity that the original offer demonstrated, the process itself has revealed a huge gap between the idea of citizenship and its reality. Instead, the whole undertaking currently seems to be in jeopardy: having been informed that they had been accepted for naturalisation and having renounced their Burundian nationality, they are now being told they cannot get the certificates confirming their new status. As a result, five years after the offer of citizenship was made neither the status of “refugee” nor “citizen” can apply unproblematically to this group.

The former refugees have been told that receiving documentation of their status is contingent upon relocation to other areas of Tanzania – at the same time as it appears that the relocation process is stalled. Compelling arguments were made both for and against relocation. Arguments for relocation were made by government officials, some members of the host population, and even a few of the naturalised former refugees. Referring to how citizenship has been constructed in Tanzania for decades, they emphasise the need to break with localised expressions of “tradition” in order to ensure citizenship built on “new” (i.e. non-ethnic) forms of social affiliation. Arguments against relocation were strongly articulated by the former refugees: if they are citizens now, should they not be allowed to move and settle freely in the country like any other Tanzanian? In addition, some believe that being forced to relocate would leave them vulnerable as it would undermine forms of local belonging that allow vital access to livelihoods.

As a result, the situation has become gridlocked with everyone feeling demoralised. In order to break this impasse, some form of compromise is likely to be necessary – a compromise that encourages relocation but that does not make citizenship contingent upon it. As one of those interviewed put it “integration happens when ‘new’ and ‘old’ citizens come together as one and count each other as relatives under equality even though our cultures and values are different.”

At the same time, the findings show that there may be some division at a senior government level regarding whether or not the citizenship process should be completed, and the very foundations of the decision to offer naturalisation may be under threat. There are complex political and legal issues at play and Tanzania must be supported by its partners, in particular the international community, if requested, to grapple with the challenges posed by the way the process has unfolded. Ultimately, it would be a tragedy if the process was to unravel at this point, and the stakes are high. As one of only a few examples of a refugee-hosting government promoting full local integration through the grant of citizenship to a particular group of refugees, what is taking place in Tanzania can be a model for response to situations of protracted exile around the world.

Programmes: Statelessness, Citizenship and Right to a Nationality
Regions: Great Lakes Region, Burundi, Tanzania
Type: IRRI Blog