All Roads Lead to Dar es Salaam


By Aisling O’Loghlen, Ph.D. Researcher in Urban Studies, date 21 Feb. 2016

For many years Tanzania has acted as a generous host to thousands of refugees from across East and Central Africa, the expansion and reduction of refugee camps in the West of the country adapting to the instances of conflict in the region.  Now, with people escaping the recent conflict brought about by the controversial third term of President Nkurunziza in Burundi, the refugee population in Tanzania is swelling once again and the country must ask itself how it will cope with this latest influx.

Refugee Camps

According to the latest statistics from the UNHCR, as of the 10th February 2016 there are now over 196,000 refugees in Nyarugusu, Ndutu and Mtendeli camps in Western Tanzania. This comprises the 63,000 Congolese who had been living in Nyarugusu camp for many years, and the recent arrival of over 130,000 Burundians. With the current situation in Burundi unlikely to improve sufficiently for refugees to return home in the short to medium term, the question now is what type of future these displaced populations face.  It can be assumed that some of these refugees will not remain in the camps; the conditions are harsh with the rainy season, poor sanitation and overcrowding increasing chances of malaria and cholera outbreaks. Protection concerns are also an issue with the reporting of attempted attacks on Burundians from government militia in one of the camps. This too will potentially encourage refugees to flee to the relative safety and anonymity of the urban centres. The need for freedom and independence will also act as a push factor for some, as many have wasted years of their lives confined to these camps.

 Dar es Salaam

As arguably the most stable country in East Africa, Tanzania, and more specifically Dar es Salaam, is rarely considered as problematic in terms of its urban refugee population. Any refugees living outside camps in the country are required to have permits, which are very difficult to obtain and normally only allocated on medical grounds or for educational purposes. Therefore, those in Dar es Salaam are for the most part living in the city clandestinely, and without legal protection or access to humanitarian assistance. Yet several studies conducted throughout the last decade indicate that there is a considerable covert population of urban refugees residing in Dar es Salaam, some who have come from the camps in the West, and others who have come straight from their country of origin or a third country. Mark Sommer’s work with Burundian refugees in the early 1990’s, reports published by Ezra Ministries of Tanzania (EMOT) (survey not available online), Asylum Access, Christian Pangilinan and my own Ph.D research have all confirmed this to be the case. Estimates of the number of urban refugees in the city vary widely: the EMOT survey conducted in 2008 suggested 3,000, while the Ministry of Home Affairs indicated there may be 10,000, and Roos Willems in her Ph.D. research claimed the number to be in the tens of thousands. All of these figures were collated before the recent escalation of violence in Burundi, and so it is likely that what were conservative estimates to begin with now do not reflect anywhere near the true number of refugees in Dar es Salaam.

Up until very recently, the Ministry of Home Affairs Refugee Services Department has virtually ignored this issue, adopting an ‘out of sight out of mind’ approach. As the urban refugees for the most part live clandestinely in Dar es Salaam and try to avoid contact with the authorities where possible, they have caused little trouble. Consequently there has been little incentive on the part of the Government to acknowledge their existence. As a result, they are unable to work in the formal sector, and are vulnerable to exploitation from employers, harassment from law enforcement, victims of crime, eviction, rent increases, exploitation and often live in constant fear of arrest or possible deportation.

UNHCR Advocacy

The UNHCR has also been slow to advocate for stronger support of the urban refugee population. Currently the organisation only provides support for a very small number of officially registered refugees who have obtained permits to stay in Dar es Salaam. The support given to these refugees is undertaken by the UNHCR’s partner organisation Relief to Development Society (REDESO), and when I contacted UNHCR officials in April of 2014, it confirmed REDESO was assisting less than 100 refugees in Dar es Salaam at that time.

Although reluctant to push the advocacy agenda, with the permission of the Government in 2014 the UNHCR did commission a scoping exercise on persons of concern in urban areas: focus on Dar es Salaam to be conducted by the Tanganyika Christian Refugee Society (TCRS) between September and December of 2014. To my understanding the scoping exercise was to focus on a sample size of approximately 1,000 refugees and asylum seekers, incorporating the three municipalities of Dar es Salaam; Kinondoni, Temeke and Ilala in addition to Morogoro and Bagamoyo. The report intended to gather information on the current situation of urban refugees for the purpose of advocating for the Government of Tanzania to reconsider its strict encampment policy. This policy of restricting refugees to camps, as noted by Sophie Chiasson, contravenes the freedom of movement of refugees, as stipulated in the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its Related Protocol, of which Tanzania is a signatory.

To date, the results of this scoping exercise have not been published, and it appears that there is no impetus on the part of the UNHCR or the Refugee Services Department to release this data. Given that the UNHCR has seemingly become more supportive of refugees living in urban areas since the publication of the Policy on Refugee Protection and Solution in Urban Areas and the Policy on Alternatives to Camps it seems strange that the organisation has not been more forthcoming in publishing this data. It raises questions regarding how much of the UNHCR rhetoric on urban refugees is lip service and how committed the organisation is to developing alternative solutions for displaced populations in urban settings.  Given the progress on engagement with urban refugees in neighbouring cities such as Nairobi, there is an existing knowledge base which the UNHCR can build upon and utilise in Dar es Salaam, however this appears to be very slow in developing.

Future Polices

During my interviews with various stakeholders during the course of my Ph.D. fieldwork trip in 2014 there were talks of the 1998 Refugee Act and 2003 National Refugee Policy being revised in order to consider including an urban refugee component. This was confirmed at the time by the Refugee Services Department, although it was also stated that the encampment policy would remain for the foreseeable future for the vast majority of refugees entering the country. The reasons cited for continuing this strategy were security concerns and fears that developing an urban refugee component would act as a pull factor for more refugees to move to cities.  However, this is a positive sign in that at least the Tanzanian Government is beginning to consider the implications of having such a large number of undocumented refugees and asylum seekers in urban areas and address the reality of the situation. Unfortunately to date the progress on this policy amendment appears to have stalled.

While the UNHCR must adhere to the policies of the nation state, there is a question here as to how far the organisation should push the urban refugee agenda in countries where host governments are unsupportive of any alternatives to encampment. Given that in the preceding several years there appears to be a lessening of hostilities from the Government towards considering an urban refugee component to the 1998 Refugees Act, surely now, with the information the organisation has available, is the time to push forward with this agenda? What is preventing the organisation from advocating more strongly for allowing refugees to be self-sufficient and to work in Dar es Salaam with the information it must have gathered from the survey conducted?

There are several reasons why an urban refugee component (and in the longer term an urban refugee policy) should be adopted in Tanzania, as outlined by Asylum Access in 2012:

  • Current policy limits the ability to provide adequate protection to refugees outside the camps.
  • Refugees in urban areas are forced to work mostly in the informal sector despite many being well educated. As they are prevented from using their skills and work experience they often live in severe poverty, while the government is losing out on any revenue from income they do receive. Their potential to contribute to both the community and economic development of Tanzania is not being realised.
  • The current conditions of the camps strip refugees of their dignity, their ability to obtain livelihoods, and their choice to leave their lives as they chose. Many refugees I interviewed viewed the camps as prisons, where they did not feel safe, and were unable to get access to necessities such as adequate food or healthcare.
  • Camps foster dependency which is often unnecessary as the majority of camp–based refugees can live independently and are fit to work.
  • The encampment policy infringes on human rights and the freedom of movement.
  • Having a sizeable undocumented population in urban regions is unadvisable and regularising the status of urban refugees would increase domestic security.

The granting of prima facie refugee status by the Tanzanian Government to thousands of Burundian refugees in the last year is to be highly commended, particularly when viewed in light of the very different response of European countries to the refugee crisis unfolding on their shores. This has occurred in addition to the naturalisation of 162,000 long term refugees from Burundi which was completed in October 2014. So there is no doubt that Tanzania has been exceptionally generous and hospitable in hosting refugees in the East African region. However, the continued encampment of hundreds of thousands of refugees is not viable in the long term; an alternative model for settling the refugee population needs to be developed in Tanzania if adequate protection and humanitarian assistance is to be provided for the group as a whole, and not just those visible refugees in camps. The world is becoming more urbanised, and with it, displacement. Tanzania like other refugee hosting nations must adapt to this change and regularising the status of this undocumented population is the first and most important step in the process.

Aisling O’Loghlen is a Ph.D Researcher in Urban Studies and an Urban Planner with research interests in human settlements design, land management, local environmental planning and management, governance, housing policy and projects, slum upgrading, post disaster institutional capacity development, and resource mobilization and development planning in urban slums. She has a particular interest in the coping mechanisms of vulnerable populations within the slum context, such as displaced populations, either internally or refugee groups. The title of her thesis is ‘The nexus of displacement and urbanisation: assessing the vulnerability levels of the urban refugee and slum populations of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania”. 

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  • Jamal Mohammed says:

    Thank you for your article . I was wondering whether a comparative study with Nairobi while using the same Research question would have provided a different picture in terms of policies and Impact in Dar es Salaam ?

  • Aisling O'Loghlen says:

    Hi Jamal,

    Thanks very much for your comment. Yes I think a comparative study with Nairobi would be really interesting, particularly as the urban refugee population is more visible there, and from my own understanding, better supported than in Dar es Salaam. I think there are some lessons that Tanzania could learn from how Kenya has addressed its urban refugee population, and that could also be said from Kampala in Uganda as well.

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