Statelessness averted? Former Burundian refugees to receive Tanzanian citizenship

Published: 15 Oct 2014
By: Lucy

(This blog first appeared on the IntLawGrrls blog site)

On 29 September 2014, at the annual meeting of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ Governing Executive Committee in Geneva, the government of Tanzania announced that it finally intends to deliver on its 2008 promise of citizenship to tens of thousands of former Burundian refugees by offering them proof of their new status as citizens. This promise – if delivered upon – will avert a growing crisis that had made those caught up in its midst effectively stateless.

This predicament has arisen from good intentions: the government of Tanzania was seeking to end exile for this group, not create a situation in which their exile would metamorphose into statelessness. 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 were living as refugees in Tanzania. It was an offer that was unprecedented and exceptional in scale not only in Tanzania, but globally. While some of this group of refugees opted to repatriate to Burundi, 162,256 took up the offer to apply for naturalisation.

The catch, however, is that so far implementation has proved elusive, and this generous offer has, over the past six years, become increasingly caught up in realpolitik. The process itself, therefore, has revealed a huge gap between the idea of citizenship and its realisation. Although the notification that refugees were accepted as citizens should have been enough to confirm their citizenship in law, in practice research with the population has shown that these former refugees, having been required to renounce their Burundian nationality, have spent the past few years being told that the process is incomplete and being refused certificates confirming their new status. As a result, neither the status “refugee” nor “citizen” can be applied unproblematically to this group, leaving their legal status highly ambiguous. As one of these individuals said, “We have been told by officials that we are only 95% Tanzanian and 5% is still incomplete.” And being only 95% Tanzanian is, in reality, as good as not being Tanzanian at all.

Part of the problem was the fact that the former refugees were told that receiving their certificates was contingent upon relocating to other areas of Tanzania – something that they resisted. Arguments for relocation were made by government officials, some members of the host population, and even a few of the naturalised former refugees, who emphasised 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 – which is how citizenship has been constructed in Tanzania for decades. Arguments against relocation were articulated by the majority of former refugees: they believed that if they have become citizens, they should be allowed to move and settle freely in the country like any other Tanzanian. In addition, some believed that being forced to relocate would create vulnerability as it would undermine forms of local belonging they had already established, that allow vital access to livelihoods. Likewise many Tanzanians living in proximity to the former refugees for decades wanted them to be allowed to stay: they have become a vital part of the local economy and are exporting food around Tanzania. With little local government impetus to initiate the process (not least due to an almost total absence of funds), the situation became gridlocked.

Therefore, the announcement by the government of Tanzania that it intends to break this impasse and ensure that the citizenship process is finally completed – and not to make it contingent upon relocation – represents a considerable breakthrough. While these words still need to be translated into the actual handing out of citizenship certificates, this announcement is a major step forward and is certainly a feather in the cap of the Tanzanian government, which has shown itself willing to change its mind on the issue of relocation.

The whole process, however, highlights the fact that today’s refugees are potentially tomorrow’s stateless people. With the launch of UNHCR’s campaign to end statelessness it is vital that “protracted” refugee situations such as this one are not forgotten. All across the Great Lakes region, tens of thousands of people are currently caught in a state of legal limbo having fled the country of their birth – or of their parents’ birth – and yet unable to secure citizenship in their country of exile. Although they may de jure have access to citizenship in their parents’ country, the longer exile continues and the less documentation of their previous citizenship that they have, the less meaningful this legal category becomes. In the current context in which durable solutions continue to be evasive, it will inevitably tip over into statelessness unless appropriate action is taken.

For now, however, as one of only a few examples of a refugee-hosting government promoting full local integration through the granting of citizenship to a particular group of refugees, what is taking place in Tanzania should be a model response to situations of protracted exile not only in the Great Lakes region, but around the world.

Programmes: Mass Atrocity Prevention
Regions: Great Lakes Region, Burundi, Tanzania
Type: IRRI Blog