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Tanzania’s Mtabila Camp finally closed

Lucy Hovil and Theodore Mbazumutima

2012-12-13, Issue 610

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For the international community and the government of Tanzania, closing Mtabila Camp and emptying it of refugees might make it look like the problem has been solved, but in reality it has only displaced or dispersed it to Burundi and elsewhere in the region

The residents of Tanzania’s Mtabila refugee camp are currently being returned to Burundi against their will. This population, most of whom fled to Tanzania in the 1990s, has been facing increasing pressure to return to Burundi for several years in something of a battle of the wills: on the one side has been the government of Tanzania which has been increasingly withdrawing services, banning planting of crops and offering incentives to leave the camp, and on the other has been a group of refugees who have dug their heels in and refused to move.[1]


Yet it has been a battle of unequals with most of the power on one side. And finally those with power – and, they would argue, the law – on their side, have won through the invocation of refugee cessation. Cessation is one of the mechanisms in refugee law through which refugee status can be withdrawn in certain circumstances. In August 2012, after an individual status review that examined whether or not there were continuing valid claims to protection, cessation was applied to the majority of the group in Mtabila: the government of Tanzania, with the support of UNHCR, finally had the legal, if not moral, approval to return the refugees.

Consequently, on 31 October 2012 this group of Burundians finally ran out of options. With the assistance of the Tanzanian army, they started being loaded onto trucks and taken to ‘receiving centres’ in southern Burundi. Phone conversations the next day with those still in Mtabila suggested that there was confusion and a degree of coercion on the first day, with allegations of violence. These allegations were supported by a conversation that one of the authors had in person in Burundi with a returnee on the night of the night of the 31st, with a woman who had a swollen leg. She said she had been beaten by army elements as they forced her into the truck without any of her personal belongings. She only had the clothes she was standing up in.

By the second day, the refugees had apparently been cowed into submission – no doubt for the pragmatic reason that not resisting allowed them to collect the few belongings allowed within the UNHCR transportation allocation – and further violence was avoided. Since then, 16,500 have apparently left the camp and are now back in Burundi. Some have reportedly fled elsewhere in the region.


On the Burundi side, a real effort has been made to receive the returnees appropriately. According to eyewitness accounts, returnees in this forced process were subjected to the regular procedures that are applied to any voluntary returnee, and were quickly moved to communal centres. Staff in the reception centres worked hard to process people, staying up until one or two in the morning to do so. In addition, Burundi’s Minister of Home Affairs and the Minister of National Solidarity, Human Rights and Gender came and offered words of welcome and comfort to those who had returned. However, as more refugees return and increasing pressure is put on services that were already stretched, there is considerable concern that they may reach a breaking point and the long-term viability of the process may be undermined.


Of course, closing the camp allows UNHCR and the international community to draw a tidy line underneath the humanitarian operation and move elsewhere. But returning ‘home’ for these refugees is not as easy as it sounds. Some feel that it is dangerous for them because they are identified with the wrong political group, and Burundi of late has been accused of showing intolerance towards those who do not share the ruling party’s political views. While these claims should, in theory, have been considered in the cessation screening process and anyone with a genuine fear given permission to stay, the procedural problems with the process including a lack of clarity about its purpose and lack of assistance to refugees in making their cases (outlined in a previous IRRI briefing paper) [2] have raised fears that not all in this category might have been identified.

For others, it means having little, if any, access to livelihoods in a country that is almost exclusively dependent on subsistence farming and yet is chronically short of land. As refugees in the camp are all too well aware, many of those who have returned to Burundi in the past few years still have no access to their land and have been forced to live in ‘Peace Villages’ which, as previous research has shown, are deeply unpopular. (See, for example, the report "Two people can't wear the same pair of shoes"). It means relocating their family into a situation that may be economically precarious, with no guarantee that their children will be able to eat let alone go to school.


At the end of the day, therefore, no amount of legal or humanitarian language can mask the fact that these refugees did not want to repatriate and had expressed this vehemently for many years. Choice has been completely absent for this group of refugees and it remains to be seen how they will fair in Burundi, and whether or not they will be forced to flee again.

For the international community and the government of Tanzania, closing Mtabila camp and emptying it of refugees might make it look like the problem has been solved, but in reality it has only displaced or dispersed it to Burundi and elsewhere in the region. In many ways the assumptions surrounding the tidy categories of refugee humanitarian response continue to fail refugees. For as long as policy makers continue to see physically ‘returning home’ across the border as the lens for understanding the optimal end to exile – and, therefore, to push for it regardless of the cost – the problems that create displacement are not going to go away.


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1. See, the International Refugee Rights Initiative and the Rema Ministries, Resisting Repatriation: Burundian Refugees Struggling to Stay in Tanzania, September 2011, and the Centre for the Study of Forced Migration and the International Refugee Rights Initiative, ‘I Don’t Know Where to Go: Burundian Refugees in Tanzania under Pressure to Leave,’ September 2009.

2. International Refugee Rights Initiative and Rema Ministries, ‘An urgent briefing on the situation of Burundian refugees in Mtabila camp in Tanzania,’ 10 August 2012.

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