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Tanzania Threatens to Expel Burundians


Burundian children stand behind a fence as they wait to be registered as refugees at Nyarugusu camp in Tanzania on June 11, 2015.


By Clayton Boeyink, a research fellow at the Centre of African Studies at the University of Edinburgh, and Stephanie Schwartz, an assistant professor in the international relations department at the London School of Economics.


John, a Burundian living in Tanzania’s Nyarugusu refugee camp, is the embodiment of the instability that more than 100,000 other Burundian refugees are facing as the Tanzanian government renews threats to forcibly repatriate Burundian refugees if they do not return “voluntarily.”

John, who we’ve given a pseudonym for his safety, says, “I have seen a lot of things. I have fled the genocide in 1972 and the war in 1993.”


In addition to fleeing Burundi multiple times, John, like many other Burundians, has also been displaced from Tanzania, the state that provided him refuge. During his second displacement from Burundi in 2012, the Tanzanian government forced John and thousands of other Burundians refugees to repatriate. He recalls, “Early in the morning, we found [Tanzanian] soldiers surrounding the camp. They even used firearms. Some [refugees] were killed; some were strongly beaten.”


Today, after having been displaced from Burundi to Tanzania for a third time in 2015, John and his compatriots are facing another violent expulsion: “Right now in Tanzania, I am not stable. I think they will force us to leave again.” This instability is a result of the Tanzanian government’s repeated assaults on refugees’ human rights, obstructions to socioeconomic integration, and recurrent threats to force them back to Burundi.


When refugees were forcibly repatriated to Burundi in 2012, many were not welcomed back into their communities. Some found their homes and land occupied after having been gone for decades, a significant obstacle in a tiny country where the majority relies on small-scale agriculture to survive. Other returnees ended up in so-called peace villages, where living conditions were dire. Competition for land often turned violent. When another crisis came around in 2015, many of these returnees were among the first to flee to Tanzania again.

SHARING A BORDER IN THE GREAT LAKES REGION OF EASTERN AFRICA, Burundians have often crossed into neighboring Tanzania to seek refuge—which Tanzania has provided, sometimes willingly and other times reluctantly. The genocide that John refers to is the 1972 “selective genocide” of Burundi’s ethnic majority of Hutu elites, teachers, businesspeople, which was perpetrated by the country’s Tutsi-controlled military. This conflict launched cyclical wars, crises, and displacements, including a civil war in 1993.


During each crisis, hundreds of thousands of Burundians fled to neighboring countries, including Tanzania, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (then known as Zaire). Though Burundi’s war officially ended in 2005, instability and poverty remained, and what’s more, these multiple displacements led to myriad land disputes in the small agrarian country. Consequently, many refugees were reluctant to leave Tanzania. John experienced this firsthand after his forced return from Tanzania in 2012: “My neighbors wanted to kill me when I tried to reclaim my land.”

More recently, amid a violent political crisis in Burundi in 2015, more than 250,000 Burundians fled to Tanzania. Brutal repression by the security forces and allied youth militias of all opposition voices means that many of those Burundian refugees do not feel safe returning.


Upping the ante on years of threats, the director of the Refugee Services Department, Tanzania’s highest refugee official, warned Burundian refugees in July that if they did not return on their own, they would be forced back—a clear violation of international human rights standards and the principle of nonrefoulement, which prohibits states from sending refugees to places where their lives or liberty may be in jeopardy.

The cards remain stacked against Burundian refugees, who are caught between a rock and a hard place as both the Tanzanian and Burundian governments angle to coerce repatriation. Indeed, beyond Tanzania’s desire to kick refugees out, Burundian President Évariste Ndayishimiye has been advocating for the return of the refugees as a part of a broader campaign to oppose international intervention and prove that since the 2015 crisis, Burundi’s human rights record has improved.

However, rights organizations report that the government’s violent crackdown never stopped; it has just hidden it better, and the international community has chosen to ignore it.


WHILE TANZANIA HAD AN OPEN-DOOR POLICY welcoming refugees for decades during parts of the 20th century, the 1990s were a turbulent time across the continent due to large-scale wars and displacements; structural adjustment policies that eroded state resources and capacities; and the advent of new democracies, which introduced electoral politics that often featured xenophobia toward perceived outsiders.


All of this resulted in the Tanzanian government ceding refugee governance to international organizations such as United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and enacting restrictive and militarized encampment policies, prohibiting refugees’ freedom of movement and rights to work outside designated camps.

Forced repatriation has been central to this encampment era. In 1996, the military expelled more than 400,000 Rwandan refugees. The ruling party even pledged in its 2005 election manifesto to make Tanzania refugee-free by 2010. And in 2009, the government announced its intention to close the camps and repeatedly urged Burundians to voluntarily return.

In the years that followed, the government restricted refugees’ access to local markets and international aid, and even threateningly stationed army tanks around the exterior of the camps. In 2012, Tanzania violently forced John back to Burundi—along with nearly 40,000 refugees living in Mtabila, the last remaining Burundian refugee camp. Multiple witnesses reported government officials burning down homes, beating people to get them on buses, sexually abusing refugees, and even forcing cesarean sections in the camp hospital to speed up the repatriation process.

The international humanitarian community on the ground was complicit in forced returns. Outside Tanzania, few human rights observers even paid attention. Using the Orwellian label of “orderly repatriation,” a group of international humanitarian agencies and nongovernmental organizations, led by the UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration, assisted in the logistics of returning the tens of thousands of Burundians.

In the lead-up to the 2012 expulsion, the UNHCR worked with the Tanzanian Ministry of Home Affairs to interview refugees living in Mtabila to see if they qualified for individual protection to remain in Tanzania. Only around 7 percent (based on data from multiple sources) of those interviewed were granted continued refugee status, and the rest were deemed no longer in need of protection and therefore subject to so-called legal expulsion.

Given the harsh tactics that the Tanzanian government was already using to try to force refugees to return, supposedly of their own accord, the international community decided to support the logistics of transporting the embattled Burundian refugees across the border. The nongovernmental organization staff members who we interviewed recalled justifying their involvement at the time, believing that if they had not been part of the process, the human rights violations within the camps would have been far worse.

Indeed, recent events feel like déjà vu, evoking the traumatic memories of Mtabila. Although Tanzania has enacted more progressive refugee policies over the years—including the decision in 2014 to grant Tanzanian citizenship to more than 160,000 Burundians residing in Tanzania since the 1970s—the defining strategy for the government has remained the same: contain refugees in camps, then force them to return by making the camps a hostile and violent environment.

SINCE THEIR ARRIVAL IN 2015, Tanzania’s refugee policy has consistently constricted Burundians, even in comparison to Congolese refugees with whom they share a camp in Nyarugusu. In 2017, despite continued flight from Burundi, the government revoked prima facie, or blanket asylum for Burundians, thus obstructing newly arriving refugees. In 2018, Tanzania withdrew from the United Nations’ Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF)—a plan to loosen encampment restrictions that otherwise stop refugees from leaving the camps—abruptly ended the naturalization program for the 1972-era refugees, and publicly called on all Burundian refugees to return to Burundi.


Despite the UNHCR’s warnings that the situation was not safe for Burundian refugees to return, in 2019, a leaked bilateral agreement between Burundi and Tanzania showed that the countries had agreed to organize the repatriation and that “returns would continue with or without refugees’ consent.” Tanzanian Home Affairs Minister Kangi Lugola went as far to say that any organization opposing these plans would “face the wrath” of the president.


Similarly, a leaked memo from the Tanzanian Ministry of Home Affairs to U.N. organizations and international NGOs in 2023, seen by Foreign Policy, stated that in response to any organization found to be encouraging refugee integration and not actively promoting voluntary repatriation, “the Government will not hesitate to take actions,” which likely means a shutdown of an organization’s operations, as the Tanzanian government has done in the past.


The government has used other avenues to disincentivize refugees from staying. In 2017, the government suddenly shut down an effective World Food Program cash transfer aid program that was highly popular with the recipients. In 2019, the government closed down the vital markets shared by refugees and nearby communities, preventing refugees from engaging in trade to supplement meager food rations.

Then came the predation—insecurity in camp became an increasing concern as refugees were subject to increased police harassment, both within and outside the camps, and deteriorating living conditions. In 2020, rights organizations reported that there was a spate of disappearances linked to Burundian and Tanzanian officials. In addition to the difficult economic situation, these kidnappings caused an acute state of fear and terror for camp residents.


Victims and human rights organizations claim that refugees have faced torture in police stations, ransoms and extortion calling for payments from friends and family, and forced deportations to Burundian security agents. Today, due to lack of international funding, food rations have been cut to meet only 50 percent of refugees’ food needs, causing extreme destitution across the camps.

While tens of thousands of Burundians have repatriated—allegedly voluntarily—human rights organizations report that refugees’ reasons for signing up to return included the fear of forced repatriation, increasing insecurity in camps, poor living conditions, and the market closures.


MANY REFUGEES that Foreign Policy spoke to admitted that they would “rather die” than return to Burundi, and that those who have returned have deeply regretted their decision due the lack of economic and social reintegration, but they are now trapped unable to return to Tanzania. As such, forced return is unlikely to be a durable solution.

The Tanzanian government should reverse its repatriation pressures on refugees, both in its rhetoric and in its actions. This will not only show respect for international law, but also prevent the addition of more instability to a still-rebuilding Burundi.


The international community should not repeat its past complicity in assisting less-than-voluntary repatriation operations and should instead condemn governmental pressures to return, even if it risks operations on the ground. Likewise, international donors need to do more to financially support the Tanzanian government in hosting refugees, which has caused tension and been central to the government’s public rationale for harsh encampment for decades.

The recent echoes of Mtabila are a warning: The threat of forced repatriation is real, and the last time that it happened, it received little attention or condemnation from the international community. This must not happen again. Refugees’ acute concerns about their imminent danger must be taken seriously to prevent more violence.


Foreign Policy @2023

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