Since independence, Tanzania has been playing host to many refugees from not only her immediate neighbours of Burundi, Rwanda, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Uganda, Kenya and Mozambique but also from other parts of the continent including among others South Africa, The Comoros, Angola, Somalia and Seychelles. And of late, due to current political crisis in some gulf countries, Tanzania has started receiving refugees from Syria and Yemen.
From the 1960s to early 1980s most of the refugees in Tanzania were mainly those running from oppressive colonial powers, wars of liberation as well as racial discrimination in the case of apartheid South Africa. Only a few fled from civil strife like in Burundi and Rwanda in the 1960s and 1970s.
During those years, refugees were referred to as immigrants or visitors. This was a sign of warmth and respect to fellow Africans who were forced to leave their countries of origin to escape difficulties associated with colonial bondage.
Tanzania –a staunch believer of Pan Africanism, to her, hosting refugees was not only a sign of African hospitality and performing her international obligations, but most importantly as an obligation in furthering Pan Africanism. The masses were mobilised on these lines and made it easy for refugees to find Tanzania a ‘home away from home’.
As earlier said, most of those refugees were running from oppressive colonial powers hence it was therefore widely expected that after independence and the end of wars of liberation refugees’ influx would have either stopped or at least slowed down and refugees wouldn’t be an issue of major concern to the country.
It was unfortunate that the flow of refugees kept on increasing even after the continent had become free from direct colonial occupation. To date refugees have been accorded with generous hospitality in Tanzania with sympathy from both the government and normal citizenry.
Despite hosting millions of refugees than any other country in Africa, Tanzania didn’t have official refugees’ policy until September 2003 so previously she was practicing what some scholars referred to as ‘open door policy’.
What necessitated the need for an official policy was mentioned in the policy itself as being the result of a number of challenges in the area of economic, development, security and social services facing the government in the course of hosting and managing an ever increasing number of refugees.
This was asserted by the third phase government under President Benjamin Mkapa during in his address to Great Lakes Symposium held in Kampala on April 2002. “Tanzania has hosted refugees for almost five decades now. We have often paid dearly for that humanitarian gesture, in terms of security, in terms of economic and social development, and in terms of strained relations with our neighbours,” said Mkapa.
Between 1993 and 2003 there was an average of between 500,000 and 800,000 refugees from Burundi and Rwanda and indeed, there was a time Tanzania was hosting the largest number of refugees in the world with some areas their populations were fourfold the number of locals. For example, during the Rwanda genocide, Ngara district in Kagera then with a population of 160,000 hosted a record of 700,000 refugees.
Currently there are about 348,019 refugees in the country among them 276,692 are from Burundi, 70,840 from DRC, 150 Somali Bantus and 337 from other nationalities. Among 276,692 Burundian refugees 242,340 entered the country after April 2015 following political unrest.
Tanzania is a signatory of various international conventions and protocols on refugees, among others are the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees, the 1969 OAU Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugees Problem in Africa and the 2016 New York Declaration on Refugees and Migrants.
The government of Tanzania has been always steadfastly standing to adhere to the implementation of those legal humanitarian instruments and Tanzanians have been ever since wholeheartedly welcoming refugees as earlier said with traditional hospitality and generosity.
As the first batch of Burundian refugees are on their way home following the recent 19th Tripartite agreement, the international community still trust on Tanzania’s commitment in pursuit of its international obligation by keeping its doors open to persons who meet the relevant criteria set in those legal humanitarian instruments.
As Home Affairs Minister Mwigulu Nchemba attested during the meeting, Tanzania as a signatory to various international legal instruments on refugees and as a law bidding nation, will continue to carry on its international obligations as far as the issue of hosting refugees is concerned.