What does it mean to be told to go ‘back home’ when you don’t have a home to go to?

Published: 15 Aug 2012
By: Lucy Hovil

Right now, a group of 30,000 Burundian refugees living in Tanzania’s Mtabila camp have no idea what the future holds for them. Or at least they do have an idea, and it is deeply concerning. They have been told that their status as refugees is at an end and that they must leave Tanzania by 31 December and go ‘home’. But home is an allusive concept for this group, many of whom have been in the country for over two decades.

It is important to state that Tanzania has been incredibly generous in hosting refugees. After all, it has been a centre of stability and peace in a region that has witnessed much conflict, most notoriously the Rwandan genocide of 1994 which saw about half a million flee to Tanzania. The country also received hundreds of thousands of Burundians fleeing violence in the early 1970s and then again in the early 1990s.

But somehow of late its generosity has waned, culminating in a statement on 21 July 2012 by Tanzanian President, Jakaya Kikwete, that “all refugee camps sheltering Burundian refugees would be closed down”. He was quoted as saying there was “no strong reason for the Burundians to stay […] when back home peace had been restored and life was back to normal in their motherland.” (“It is ‘home time’ for Burundian refugees,” Daily News, 22 July 2012.)

Of course, it is a universal fact that sooner or later visitors overstay their welcome and we are relieved to see them go. And, after all, a peace deal has been signed in Burundi and hundreds of thousands of their fellow refugees have made the journey home. Closing the camp allows for UNHCR and the international community to draw a tidy line underneath the humanitarian operation and move elsewhere. So what is the problem? Given that living conditions in the camp are, by all accounts, terrible, why don’t they just go home?

The issue here is that going ‘back home’ for these refugees is not as easy as it sounds. For some, going ‘home’ is dangerous because they belong to the wrong political group, and Burundi of late has shown intolerance towards those who do not share the ruling party’s political views. For others, going ‘home’ means having little, if any, access to livelihoods in a country that is almost exclusively dependent on subsistence farming and yet is chronically short of land. As refugees in the camp are all too well aware, many of those who have returned to Burundi in the past few years still have no access to their land and have been forced to live in ‘Peace Villages’ which, as previous IRRI research has shown, are deeply unpopular. (See, for example, the report “Two people can’t wear the same pair of shoes”). It means relocating their family into a situation that may be economically precarious, with no guarantee that their children will be able to eat let alone go to school.

So what is the alternative? Recognising that there are no easy answers, IRRI has just published a briefing document appealing to the government of Tanzania and UNHCR to, at the very least, ensure that those who continue to need international protection (as defined in the 1951 Refugee Convention) continue to receive it (read the report here). And, assuming that the camp is going to be closed, to make sure that sufficient checks and balances are put in place to maintain the basic rights of the refugees.

But ultimately, of course, this is all largely palliative. It is vital that adequate recognition be made of the fact that closing the camp might make it look like the problem has been solved in Tanzania, but in reality it will only have displaced or dispersed it to Burundi and elsewhere in the region. With strong echoes of the situation facing Rwandan refugees, it is clear that the tidy categories of humanitarian response continue to fail refugees. Specifically for as long as policy makers continue to see ‘returning home’ as the optimal end to exile – and, therefore, to push for it regardless of the cost – the problems that create displacement are not going to go away.

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