THE National Consultative Forum (NCF) was originally scheduled to be held towards the end of 2019, but circumstances imposed a postponement to September 2020, and for good reason.
The year 2019, June, to be specific, was a landmark date for those engaged with refugee matters, but so too is November 2020.
On June 20, 1969, the world was given its first ever regional treaty on refugees – the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) Convention Governing Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems, making the year 2019, the Golden Jubilee, that is, 5Oth anniversary.
On the other hand, November 2020 marked exactly 60 years since the arrival in Tanganyika (soon to be renamed Tanzania) of the first and largest influx of refugees, triggered by instability and violence in Rwanda.
The NCF, the first ever gathering of its type was to a large extent inspired by these two events.
Government through the Ministry of Home Affairs, and the Department of Refugee Services, found it important to convene a national gathering of key stakeholders to reflect on Tanzania’s history as a refugee hosting nation for the last 60 uninterrupted years.
The result was the NCF, convened at Mt Meru Hotel in picturesque Arusha September 23-24 through a commendable collaboration between the government, DIGNITY Kwanza and other stakeholders. The Guest of Honour was none other the Minister for Home Affairs.
For two consecutive days, nearly 70 participants set themselves three broad objectives: to reminisce about the legacy of Mwalimu Nyerere, the nation’s founding father and the architect of the ‘open door policy’ in refugee management; to identify key highlights of the last 60 years of hosting refugees, so as to put on record this hitherto undocumented information in a popular book; and to distill from this rich and unique history the lessons learnt, especially those of durable solutions.
The NCF also set itself apart for the inclusiveness which informed the selection of participants. Besides representatives of central and local governments was the UNHCR, the leading global Agency with responsibility for refugees.
Local NGOs were also amply represented, through individual NGOs but also through their umbrella body – The Tanzania Refugee and Migrants Network (TAREMINET).
Academia, largely through the Centre for the Study of Forced Migration (CSFM) of the University of Dar es Salaam, took the most active part at each and every stage of the NCF.
The NCF drew extensively from invaluable experiences of some of the nation’s senior citizens that included Mzee Joseph Butiku, Executive Director of The Mwalimu Nyerere Foundation; retired ambassadors, David Kapya, Christopher Liundi, Ami Mpungwe, Patrick Tsere, Bertha Semu-Somi and Mzee Walter Bgoya, pre-eminent Tanzania publisher, former Foreign Service Officer with knowledge of issues of Great Lakes region and African National liberation.
This rich mix of participants with diverse experiences but all of them closely linked to the subject of the conference gave rise to far reaching discussions that were intense and candid and often laced with great humour.
One issue that generated hot but constructive debate was whether the granting of asylum and hosting of refugees was a ‘temporary’ or ‘permanent’ phenomenon.
Owing to concurrent demands of NCF housekeeping matters, I was unable to participate in this particular discussion. Consequently, I take this opportunity to share my viewpoint.
At the very outset the manner in which this core question was framed, that is, ‘temporary vs permanent’, set the stage for rigid positioning by parties adhering to one or the other of the two perspectives.
In reality, rather than being mutually exclusive, depending on the context, refugee hosting can be quite a temporary affair while in yet others it can assume the face of a protracted, prolonged affair.
As early as 1979, while addressing an international conference in Arusha, Mwalimu was to aptly observe:
For a minority of these refugees, the problem from which they are fleeing is a temporary one; sometimes it is only a matter of a few weeks until they can go back home.
But although virtually all refugees initially expect to return home at some time, there will very often be large numbers of people who will be unable to return home safely for months or years to come.
So, rather than viewing refugee hosting through the “temporary or permanent” prism, the more rational approach would seem to regard them as capable of co-existing, since in certain circumstances the preferable approach would be to handle it as a passing, transitional phenomenon, while in others, wisdom would require acknowledgement of its protracted nature.
Let us begin by turning attention to the possible justification for the argument that refugee hosting is ‘temporary’ or transient situation.
To do so, it is advisable to begin with the basic rationale for which refugee status is granted. It needs to be acknowledged that refugee status is granted neither arbitrarily nor for the victim’s life-time.
Asylum is granted to fill a temporary protection gap in the refugee’s life. For the time that he finds himself outside the country he fled from, he is “unable or unwilling to avail himself of the protection” of that state.
Human needs are many – identification / travel documents, education, medical, shelter, physical security, justice and so on.
It is this gap in these essential services that the grant of asylum seeks to fill.
Logically, therefore, the moment a refugee ceases to experience a protection gap, the legal basis for continuing to provide asylum collapses. It then becomes legally permissible and is in fact fairly common practice for the host nation to invoke the so called “cessation clause”.
That is a further justification for suggesting that refugee hosting was conceived as having temporal limitations, in other words of a temporary duration.
Asylum can also come to an end if it comes to light that prior to arrival in the host country (or country of asylum), the refugee had allegedly committed a serious international crime, such as genocide, crimes against humanity, or a war crime.
An “exclusion clause” is found in the relevant treaties and national laws alike. It was for example invoked to exclude certain Rwandese refugees (so called genocidaires) found in Tanzania and suspected of their previous role in the 1994 genocide.
There is one final observation to be made in favour of the idea that hosting of refugees was designed as a transient, a passing phenomenon.
Treaty and national laws alike share a legal obligation on the part of the country of asylum and other key international players, such as the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and UNHCR, to seek a “durable solution” for existing refugees.
Besides facilitating the safe, dignified and consensual return to countries of origin (home country), there are two additional durable solutions to pick from – resettlement in a third, willing country, or the local integration (leading to naturalisation) within the country of asylum.
The manner in which this obligation has been formulated simply leaves no room for casting doubt as to the “transitional” manner of hosting refugee.
It is now high time to turn to the “opposing” school of thought that regards the hosting of refugees as a prolonged, protracted experience, such that policies and law have to be designed accordingly.
Their respective arguments are no less compelling, primarily if the last 60 years of Tanzania’s experience, and beyond the nation’s borders too, are given due attention.
Once again, let us begin with the very basics. How long has the refugee problem been with us? Are the numbers in decline or increasing?
What is the opinion of the world’s leading experts? As Mwalimu Nyerere reminded participants of the Arusha Conference in 1979, the refugee population on the continent stood at 3.5 million.
A decade earlier, it was less than a million, in fact about 700,000. As we write, the refugee population in just two countries – Uganda and Sudan – exceeds the 1979 ceiling.
In the last 60 years there has never been a period in which Tanzania was not the host of one or another refugee population, the only key distinction being in the numbers.
To be fair, we have seen a near 100 per cent return of refugees and fighters of the national liberation movements, mostly from the southern African sub-region – Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe.
That can also be said of Rwandese refugees. But it is equally fair to point out that in both these instances the root cause of the displacement was in a way, dealt with in a definitive way with no records of a recurrence or re-cyclical movement (as is the case of Burundi refugees).
It is also true that there has been a steady, visible decline in the numbers of refugees in Tanzania over the last 2 decades. If in the aftermath of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda the BENACO Camp in Ngara with over 1.2 million refugees was the largest on the continent, by September 2020 the nationwide population of refugees was 285,054.
From a refugee studies perspective, this figure while nowhere even remotely close to the magnitude of the problem in Uganda (about 1.4 million) is a matter of grave concern.
Loescher et al (2008) isolate what are known as ‘protracted refugee situations’ which essentially are “refugee population of 25,000 or more who have been in exile for five or more years in a developing country”.
The justification of the benchmark used to arrive at the figure 25,000 is outside the purview of this contribution to the discussion, but it is quite clear, 285,054 refugees create a situation which far outstrips what is defined as a “protracted refugee situation.”
The 77,660 Congolese refugees must also be a source of concern as they too outstrip the parameters of a protracted refugee situation. The 1972 influx of Burundi refugees unfortunately, was not to be the last in Tanzania’s contemporary history. It would be sadly repeated in 1993, and again in 2015.
As the Director of the Refugee Services department made it clear to the NCF, as of September 17, 2020 a total of 94,831 refugees and asylum seekers had been repatriated to Burundi.
We can only hope the era ahead will not be one of re-cyclical movement as has largely been the trend so far.
It would appear that some section of Government is far from convinced that the problem of Burundi refugees is about to disappear in its entirety.
Otherwise, the appeal made at the NCF, for creating ‘Safe Zones’ within Burundi in order to contain cross - border movements would probably never have been made.
Likewise, the appeal to lift sanctions and instead scale up direct investment to allow Burundi to build a solid economy is also inspired by uncertainties in the long-term stability and security, key push factors for fleeing Burundi.
So those inclined towards seeing refugee hosting as a prolonged and not transient phenomenon also deserve to be heard, even if only for the additional reason advanced by Mzee Butiku.
Following his keynote address to the NCF, he made the following invaluable observation: Human beings although compelled to share a variety of spaces with fellow human beings, no two individuals or social groups are identical in their value systems.
If not well managed, in the ensuing mutual relations emerging differences can and often do escalate to tensions and violence of the type that ultimately trigger cross-border displacement, that is, refugees.
This, concluded Mzee Butiku, should be sufficient reason to reconsider viewing the refugee problem generally, as temporary. That said, we cannot rule out altogether, the prospect of sustainable peace and stability in our neighborhood, especially in Burundi and DRC, so that one day we could find ourselves in a refugee – free Great Lakes Region.
In my reflections on the NCF, and in particular the “temporary/permanent” duel at the Arusha NCF, I couldn’t help also ruminating on the Covid-19 pandemic.
In a bizarre confluence of events, one could see some similarities between the pandemic, on the one hand, and the phenomenon hosting refugees, on the other. They share similarities, to the extent that both represent clear disasters.
The former, is a public health calamity, while the latter is a humanitarian one. In addition, and more importantly, each of them, depending on the context, is capable of being classified either as temporary, or permanent.
Just as refugee hosting can be a temporary, transient problem, so too can Covid-19 pandemic. There are those, for example, who having contracted the virus, rapidly transited to full recovery, such that for this category of individual, the pandemic was justifiably “temporary”.
But there are those who are compelled to permanently live under the threat of attack. In other words, hope for the best while preparing for the worst!
*Prof. Khoti Chilomba Kamanga, Department of Public Law and Centre for the Study of Forced Migration (CSFM), University of Dar es Salaam.