Argument

Kicking Refugees Out Makes Everyone Less Safe

Tanzania is pushing Burundian refugees out—and endangering the region’s stability.

A man hangs a Burundian flag on the lead bus transporting repatriated refugees arriving at the Gisuru border crossing on Oct. 3, 2019 in Ruyigi, Burundi.
A man hangs a Burundian flag on the lead bus transporting repatriated refugees arriving at the Gisuru border crossing on Oct. 3, 2019 in Ruyigi, Burundi. TCHANDROU NITANGA/AFP via Getty Images

On the afternoon of Dec. 18, 2020 in Tanzania’s Nyarugusu refugee camp, a well-known and feared Land Cruiser arrived at a small shop. Men emerged from the vehicle and abducted the shopkeeper and a customer. The abductees, both Burundian refugees, were severely beaten for three days until they were released. Refugees reported this and other stories to SOS Media Burundi, a consortium of Burundian journalists in exile, and explained that the kidnapping, which happened in broad daylight and was witnessed by many, was orchestrated by a Tanzanian intelligence officer.

This incident follows alarming reports on the situation of Burundian refugees in Tanzania, which includes concerns voiced by Amnesty International and other organizations about the bilateral agreement signed between Tanzania and Burundi on Aug. 24, 2019, which states that “returns [of Burundian refugees from Tanzania to Burundi] would continue with or without refugees’ consent.”

In the last year, and especially in the last months, international publications such as the Economist and international human rights organizations have reported a significant escalation of intimidation against refugees. In November 2020, Human Rights Watch published an extensive report on Tanzanian security forces’ involvement in kidnappings, ransoms, torture, and forced returns to Burundi.

Many Burundian refugees fear arrest, torture, and disappearance unless they flee the camp and return to Burundi, especially if they speak out to the media.

Tanzania is host to more than 150,000 Burundian refugees; the vast majority fled political repression and communal tensions in 2015 when the government cracked down on demonstrations against the regime. The Burundian authorities have since been accused of repeatedly silencing dissenting voices and violating human rights.

Most refugees live in three camps in the Kigoma region: Nyarugusu, Nduta, and Mtendeli. Most are also repeat refugees: people (or children of people) who were already refugees in Tanzania during the 1993-2005 Civil War and had eventually returned to Burundi. Many never felt properly reintegrated during their time in Burundi, and many believe they would face similar circumstances if they were to return again.

The abductions have instilled a climate of terror; many Burundian refugees fear arrest, torture, and disappearance unless they flee the camp and return to Burundi, especially if they speak out to the media. However, many do not feel safe returning, and official reports by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which facilitates repatriations, point to the difficult situation of repatriated refugees in Burundi. The abductions are only the latest of the strategies deployed to force refugee returns to Burundi.


Tanzania has one of the strictest encampment policies in the world: Refugees are required to live in camps they cannot leave without permission. The camps are run by the Tanzanian Ministry of Home Affairs in coordination with United Nations agencies, and partner nongovernmental organizations provide food rations and housing.

Constricting the space for asylum is a well-documented strategy to try to curb refugee numbers. It has been widely used in Europe and the United States, even though research has repeatedly debunked its efficacy. Tanzania is no different: The already strict asylum environment worsened in 2017.

Verbal warnings were the beginning. In July 2017, according to the Guardian, Tanzanian President John Magufuli declared, “It’s not that I am expelling Burundian refugees. I am just advising them to voluntarily return home. … I have been assured; the place is now calm.”

The advice was soon followed by policy measures. Despite the rough conditions they live in, refugees and their host communities had nevertheless started developing local markets, businesses, and services. In August 2017, the government shut down a successful and popular World Food Program cash transfer initiative and, in 2019, closed all camp markets. This intentional undermining of refugee livelihoods coincided with dwindling international funding and reduced food rations. More recently, the government banned repairs and rebuilding of mud houses in the camps.

Those kidnapped were reportedly detained in local police stations for several weeks, deprived of food, hung from ceilings in handcuffs, beaten, electrocuted, and had chilis rubbed on their wounds and genitals.

At the same time, a carrot was activated to pair with the sticks. As in many other situations, the UNHCR facilitates the journey of those willing to return by providing $150 per adult and $75 per child, although this program is severely underfunded and returnees still face significant security and economic vulnerabilities in Burundi.

Following these positive and negative incentives and strongly worded advice came the ramping up of intimidation strategies documented by Human Rights Watch.

The organization reported how those kidnapped were reportedly detained in local police stations for several weeks, deprived of food, hung from ceilings in handcuffs, beaten, electrocuted, and had chilis rubbed on their wounds and genitals. Some were released through ransom, whereas others were illegally returned to Burundi, where they were transferred to Burundian authorities and subjected to trials with no lawyers present. Others disappeared indefinitely.

The report also discusses collusion between Tanzanian and Burundian intelligence services and Burundian government infiltrators targeting wealthy businesspeople for high ransoms. The intimidation and repatriation of wealthier refugees has cut off valuable financiers with the direct effect of further crippling the camps’ economies.

Adding to the climate of fear, independent media and human rights organizations reported increased disappearances and killings in the camps with no investigations by the Tanzanian police, as well as threats against those who would dare speak to the media. These threatening politics of asylum have been condemned by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

According to the UNHCR, nearly 60,000 refugees returned between September 2017 and December 2018, but four times as many were still in the camps in 2019. The number of repatriations slowed down substantially in 2019 and early 2020, but then picked up, reaching roughly 30,000 in all of 2020. Although recent acts of terror and economic constriction are changing this calculus, camp residents have chosen to endure hunger instead of returning to a country where many feared government persecution and knew from past repatriation operations that there was little place for them to reintegrate.

Despite United Nations and government-led reintegration initiatives, many of those who returned to Burundi in the 2000s and early 2010s faced substantial issues accessing land, work, and livelihoods. This group of returnees, known as Abahunguste (Kirundi for “those who came back”) or rapatriés (French for “repatriates”), were often excluded and labeled as supporters of the main opposition party and militant group, the National Forces of Liberation. The fear, for many, is that such a story of further destitution upon return would repeat itself.

The fear commonly found in various reports is a repetition of the painful experience of forced repatriation experienced when Mtabila refugee camp was violently closed in 2012. This history of repatriation and failed reintegration culminates in cycles of entrenched displacement seen in Tanzania today. In 2017, when we conducted research in the camps, a refugee explained, “I would rather die than return to Burundi.”


Although forced repatriations for Burundians are not new in Tanzania, this level of terror is, so why is it happening now? In short, there seems to be a simultaneous push and pull by Tanzanian and Burundian governments.

Magufuli, an ardent nationalist, has a fraught relationship with international donors and has shut down pushes by the UNHCR to open up its strict encampment policies. The country’s recent rejection of COVID-19 vaccines, along with Magufuli’s mocking of mask usage and testing, further shows the president’s willingness to dismiss international consensus on public health measures.

Moreover, the space of democracy has, according to international observers, shrunk under Magufuli as reporters and his opposition face arbitrary arrest and disappearances and the 2020 election was, according to the Commonwealth, marked by repression and intimidation. As such, these actions in the camps are consistent with Magufuli’s growing reputation as a strongman who is not afraid to exploit xenophobic sentiments toward Burundian refugees.

Meanwhile, the existence of hundreds of thousands of Burundian refugees in neighboring countries is a public relations nightmare for the ruling party in Burundi that wishes to convince the world and its citizens the situation is now peaceful and stable. Burundi became very isolated on the international stage after its repression of the 2015 protests, and the situation only marginally improved in recent years, in part owing to changes in the country and ruling party’s leadership.

On the U.N. Development Program’s Human Development Index, Burundi has suffered further decline since 2015, despite having already had one of the lowest ratings in the world. Restoring diplomatic and economic ties are important to the government, which has just struck an important diplomatic victory with the U.N. Security Council to stop its regular specific briefing on human rights abuses in the country.

On Dec. 24, 2020 the government sent a positive signal with the presidential pardon of imprisoned journalists, but many observers are dubious that the regime has changed and highlight the promotion of human rights abusers to key positions. As a recent report by the Burundi Human Rights Initiative noted, there are “contradictions in President Ndayishimiye’s speeches and the gulf between his promises and the reality.” Refugees are astute observers of the situation at home, and they fear that neither the protection of their rights nor their chance to access decent livelihoods have substantially evolved.

However, strict encampment, violent intimidation, and forced repatriation do not have to be the order of the day in Tanzania. Burundian refugees contribute substantially to the local economy as sources of labor and by consuming local goods, and they are accompanied with humanitarian spillover benefits such as new infrastructure and markets.

Strict encampment, violent intimidation, and forced repatriation do not have to be the order of the day in Tanzania. Burundian refugees contribute substantially to the local economy.

In the 1970s, when Tanzania’s first president Julius Nyerere had an open-door policy for anticolonial dissidents from nearby countries such as South Africa, Zimbabwe, and others, Burundian refugees were often confined to settlements. They were exploited for their labor in the underdeveloped peripheries of the country. Their history is tainted with xenophobia and exclusion, but it is also a story, albeit an unfinished one, of strengthening the Tanzanian economy and society.

If given unpressured time in Tanzania—something provided to 70,000 refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo who have not yet faced the same pressure—Burundian refugees can continue to boost local economies and perhaps gradually rekindle their relationship with Burundi, a country many of them fled multiple times.

The danger of forced repatriation is also geopolitical. In an era when the international community appears more interested in stability than human and refugee rights, it is crucial to see that the forced or encouraged repatriation of Burundian refugees is unlikely to benefit the medium and long-run stability of the region.

On the contrary, Burundi’s recent history has been characterized by premature and difficult attempts to reintegrate its returning citizens, which helped spark the crisis and mass exodus of 2015. Forcibly pushing back refugees to Burundi will not end the vicious cycle of mass displacement in the region; it will prolong it.

Clayton Boeyink is a Research Fellow at with Social Anthropology and the Centre of African Studies at the University of Edinburgh. His work interrogates the politics and practices of refugee self-reliance and livelihoods in refugee camps in Tanzania and among refugees in Nairobi, Kenya.

Jean-Benoît Falisse is a lecturer at the Centre of African Studies at the University of Edinburgh. He has been working in and on the African Great Lakes region, focusing on access to basic social services, since 2009.