You can stay, but you have to go…


All gifts come with strings attached: but some have more strings attached than others.

In 2008, Tanzania announced it was prepared to offer naturalisation to 162,000 Burundian refugees. Known as the “1972” caseload (to distinguish them from the later influx of Burundians arriving from 1993 onwards), 85% of this population inherited their refugee status, being born in the settlements in Western Tanzania. UNHCR withdrew from the camps in 1985 and for the past twenty-five years, the 1972 Burundian have been self-sufficient, even producing a small surplus – and paying tax revenue on that profit. A model population for local integration, no? Cue much praise from governments, the United Nations and NGOs for Tanzania’s “unprecedented generosity and courageous decision”.

It’s innovative, impressive, even inspiring. Oh, but just one catch: in order to receive their citizenship certificates, the Burundians have to relocate to new communities.

Naturalisation – a “solution” to forced migration – has been made dependent on a forced “relocation”. Which some might call displacement by any other name.This is where the trouble started. Fast forward 18 months from those celebratory statements, and less than half a percent of the refugees have actually received their certificates. These new Tanzanian citizens – offered a choice between returning to Burundi or taking up naturalization – aren’t particularly keen to uproot themselves from home, trading in de facto citizenship for a de jure piece of paper and experiencing a second displacement. As one remarked to a local journalist, “I have known no other place in Tanzania since 1972; the furthest I have gone is Tabora town. I own more than 200 herd of cattle and have a family of 12 children but I am being asked to go to a strange place in Tanga Region”.

The result is messy. Anti-refugee sentiment is high. Local authorities are hostile, reluctant to receive these new residents. The Minister of Home Affairs who had pushed for the adoption of the policy lost his seat in the October 2010 general elections, partly as a result of his perceived “pro-refugee” politics. And the bill? Oh, it’s an expensive mess: USD $103 million for the refugees’ relocation and absorption. A  nice new airport (see above). But it gets worse. Enter a bona fide cast of Hollywood villains: Agribusinesses AgriSol and Pharos Ag, the latter headed up by Republican donor and ethanol baron Bruce Rastetter.

Their latest investment? A large agricultural development in Tanzania, on the site of three “abandoned” refugee camps. Two of which still house these Burundian refugees… or rather, “newly naturalised Tanzanians”. Though it does appear that the deal was signed after naturalization process began, the timing’s pretty damming.The Oakland institute has done some fantastic and courageous work on the issue of land grabs in Africa, exposing just how corrupt these deals are across the continent (If you really want to get angry, read the part about how Agrisol are going to bring in white South African farm managers).

Reading their reports today has made me angry enough to write this.Tanzania’s “gift” of naturalisation was always going to be a political calculation. Such gifts always are. But so many humanitarian actors and refugee advocates have invested in promoting this naturalisation as a “solution” – in part because of the desperate need for more states to offer local integration to their long-term refugee populations – that many have been afraid to publicly condemn this ugly relocation, tainted by land grab. The result is a protracted refugee population arguably left in far greater limbo than they were before they were offered such a double-edged solution.