Tanzania granted the largest-ever mass citizenship to refugees. Then what?

Ryan Lenora Brown/The Christian Science Monitor
Esther Muguta fled violence in Burundi in 1972, when she was 18. In 2015, she and 162,000 other refugees became citizens of Tanzania in the largest-ever mass naturalization of refugees.
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How many refugees should we let in? It’s a question that leaders in North America and Europe endlessly debate. But most of the world’s refugees make it only as far as the country next door. From Turkey to Uganda to Pakistan, in countries neighboring war zones or disasters, the question is often not how many refugees to take but what to do with those who inevitably arrive. In 2014, with the help of international donors, Tanzania decided to grant citizenship to more than 160,000 people who had fled violence in Burundi and their children – the biggest mass naturalization of refugees in history. But as that money disappears, or fails to arrive, the aftermath has gotten messy. The story of the New Tanzanians, as the former refugees are called, goes to the heart of questions about what responsibilities poor governments have to desperate people arriving on their doorsteps – and what responsibilities the rest of the world has to them, too.

Why We Wrote This

Most refugees actually flee to the country next door. But those countries often are not wealthy – so even if they initially welcome refugees, the rest of the world has a role to play, too. Part 11 of On the Move: the faces, places, and politics of migration.

Daudi Nzila had thought a long time about what made this country his home, and he had decided, finally, it was the bones. 

“When you buried your beloveds somewhere, then that place belongs to you,” he told himself. How could a place not be yours when your blood, your history, were literally a part of the earth you walked on?

There were other things, too. Like the mango trees that swished and swayed over his stout concrete house. Thirty-six years ago, when Mr. Nzila was a young refugee from Burundi, he’d planted two tiny green saplings here as a kind of prayer that he would be in one place long enough to see them grow. Now, they draped over his yard like a giant canopy, blotting the sun. 

Why We Wrote This

Most refugees actually flee to the country next door. But those countries often are not wealthy – so even if they initially welcome refugees, the rest of the world has a role to play, too. Part 11 of On the Move: the faces, places, and politics of migration.

And there were his 10 children, Tanzanian to their very core. All but one had been born here, and they spoke Swahili as easily as they breathed. At school, they wore sweaters in the colors of the Tanzanian flag, memorized Tanzanian history, belted the Tanzanian national anthem.

For Nzila, becoming Tanzanian had been a slow accumulation of experiences. But it had also happened all at once. 

In 2014, he and 162,000 other Burundian refugees were granted Tanzanian citizenship. It was a monumental event, the first and only time that a country has turned so many people from refugees to citizens all at once. (It is comparable, as a percentage of the country’s population, to the US naturalizing a million people in one go.) The aftermath, however, has been messy, with many former refugees feeling abandoned by both Tanzania and the international community that promised to help the country through the citizenship process.

Still, for people like Nzila and many of his neighbors, the act changed the shape of the world.

“I’m not sure there’s another country in the world that would do for us what Tanzania did,” says Leonard Abihudi, the chairperson of the main village in Ulyankulu, one of the settlements in western Tanzania where the Burundian refugees settled four decades ago. “It is not an easy thing to do, to take the food you have bought for your children and instead give it to strangers. But that is what this country did for us, and we owe them great respect for it.” 

Across North America and Europe, the question of how many refugees to accept is the subject of endless debate. Twenty thousand this year, perhaps, maybe 30,000 the next. But in places like Tanzania, there isn’t the same luxury of choice. The vast majority of refugees travel only as far as the country next door. From Turkey to Uganda to Pakistan, in countries neighboring war zones or humanitarian disasters, the question is often not how many people to take but what to do with those who inevitably arrive.

Now their presence is pushing world leaders – who gathered last week in Morocco to sign a global agreement on migration – to reckon with another set of questions. In the countries that receive the most refugees – most of them poor nations themselves – what responsibilities do governments have to the desperate people arriving on their doorsteps? And what responsibility does the rest of the world have to them? 

Ryan Lenora Brown/The Christian Science Monitor
A market area in Ulyankulu, Tanzania, one of several settlements the government set up for Burundian refugees in the 1970s.

The story of the watanzania wapya, the New Tanzanians, goes to the heart of those questions. It’s the story of what happens when a government and international donors make a difficult promise to refugees, and what happens when they fail to follow through.

“The world left us like they had no debt to us,” Nzila says. “We are still waiting.”


Esther Muguta ran through the day. She ran through the night. She ran past forests of oil palms and coffee trees, sagging under their abandoned harvest. She ran as the moon glinted off Lake Tanganyika and as the sun rose over it in pinks and blues. She didn’t stop running, or so it felt, until she had reached the Tanzanian border three days later.

It was July 1972, two months into a bloody and tangled conflict between Burundi’s two ethnic groups, the Hutu and the Tutsi. Mass killings of Hutus were becoming common, and Ms. Muguta’s family knew they had to get out.

They assumed it would be temporary. At home, they had been rich, with a lush farm and enough slippery silver lake fish that they were never hungry. But here, they lived in a mud hut and took humiliatingly small jobs for humiliatingly small money. Her brother, unused to hard labor, sometimes returned from work with his hands bloody, peeling as easily as the skin of a boiled tomato. 

“People say we were brave then,” she says. “We weren’t brave. We just had no other choice.”

But the Mugutas were also, in some ways, lucky. The Tanzania they walked into, just a decade into its independence, was led by a president, Julius Nyerere, who had steeped his country in the idea of pan-African solidarity.

“No true African socialist can look at a line drawn on a map and say the people on this side of that line are my brothers, but those who happen to live on the other side of it can have no claim on me,” Nyerere had said in a speech a few years before. “Every individual on this continent is his brother.”

As tens of thousands of Burundian refugees began arriving, Nyerere’s government built three settlements for them to live in. So, along with thousands of others, Muguta packed her things and made her way to Ulyankulu, a sprawl of forest and brush 400 kilometers east of the Burundian border where Nyerere had promised they could stay as long as they needed.

And so life began again. The refugees slept outside until they could build themselves small houses. Then they scooped red clay out of the earth and built roads. They built schools. They planted long rows of corn and waited for them to grow. Children were born, and then grew up. Their parents stopped, or tried to stop, imagining when they might go home.


But though the green edges of Ulyankulu blurred into the surrounding countryside – not blocked off by fences or watch towers – there were still many reminders that the refugees were not Tanzanians.

For one thing, they still needed permission to leave the settlements. And wherever they went, their history seemed to linger on them like a bad smell.

Mkimbizi, whispered Eric Nyandwi’s high school classmates. It meant refugee, but the direct Swahili translation was one who fled his home. And to Mr. Nyandwi, that meaning was laced with shame.

Why didn’t you stay? the word seemed to beg. Why didn’t you fight?

“Growing up, you feel very badly about your history,” says Grace Ntayaya, who was raised in Ulyankulu, the child of Burundian refugees. “You’ve never even touched the clay of Burundi, but to everyone here, that’s where you belong.”

Ryan Lenora Brown/The Christian Science Monitor
A barber shop in Ulyankulu, Tanzania. When Tanzania's government created Ulyankulu and other refugee settlements in the 1970s, it purposely set them up to function as towns, not refugee camps, to allow residents to become self-sufficient.

By the early 2000s, the Tanzanian government was facing a conundrum. The Burundian communities in Ulyankulu and the other two settlements in western Tanzania, Katumba and Mishamo, had been living there so long that more than 80 percent of the population had actually been born in Tanzania. Though they were technically Burundians under the law, most had no interest in “returning” to a country they had never laid eyes on.

“It seemed prudent, at that time, that we would just allow them to stay,” says Harrison Mseke, director of refugee services in the Tanzanian Ministry of Home Affairs. And allowing the refugees to stay served another purpose as well. Ruling party Chama Cha Mapinduzi – once led by Nyerere – had pledged in 2005 to make the country “refugee free” by 2010. For CCM, giving Burundians citizenship was, ironically, a quick way to that goal.

So in late 2007, the government struck a deal with the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, and donors. It would offer citizenship or a ticket home to the more than 200,000 Burundians who had come in 1972 and their descendants. The UN and its partners budgeted about $100 million to help close the old settlements and resettle the new citizens across the country.

About 162,000 people took up Tanzania’s offer of citizenship, including Mugata. (Another 46,000 opted to return to Burundi). The process was riddled with delays, but in early 2015 she at last joined a long line outside a government office in Ulyankulu. When she reached the front, an official handed her a small laminated square of paper with her photograph in the corner.

This is to certify that Esther Stariko Muguta has been naturalized as a citizen of Tanzania under section 9(1) of the Tanzania Citizenship Act. 

Her hands shook as she took it from him. I felt free,” she says. 

Many of the ways citizenship changed her life were small, almost imperceptible. It was, more than anything, a feeling of lightness, of holding her head up higher. She didn’t need anyone’s permission to be here anymore. 

But some things hadn’t changed. Settlement residents still could not build anything without government permission. The plan to close them down, meanwhile, stalled after locals resisted and donors failed to come through with the cash. (In 2018, UNHCR’s operations in Tanzania fell $74 million short of their goal. And UNHCR says that the $100 million figure put forward to resettle the New Tanzanians was an estimate of the costs, which it hoped to get from its funders, not a promised pledge.)

Several thousand refugees had also missed the deadline to apply for citizenship or hadn’t had their applications processed, leaving them stuck in limbo as they waited for the government to reopen applications. (It eventually did so, but none of the 30,000 or so refugees who applied in the second round has yet received citizenship.)

Both international organizations and the Tanzanian government have pointed fingers at each other as the administration shifts its stance toward refugees.

“There has been a growing frustration within government that the donor community has abandoned us,” says Mr. Mseke.


That frustration, he says, has had knock-on effects in Tanzania’s policies toward newer waves of migrants arriving on its doorstep.

Since political violence broke out in Burundi in 2015, more than a quarter million people have crossed the border into Tanzania. Some 222,000 remain in dreary camps, though Tanzania’s president, John Magafuli, has made repeated overtures for them to leave.

“It’s not that I am expelling Burundian refugees. I am just advising them to voluntarily return home,” said Mr. Magufuli in July 2017, amid widespread reports that violence was continuing in Burundi. “I urge Burundians to remain in their country, I have been assured the place is now calm.”

This February, Magafuli withdrew the country from a UN pilot program intended to find long-term solutions to protracted refugee crises around the world. He was concerned, he said, that the international community didn’t really care about its responsibilities to refugee-hosting countries like Tanzania. 

Even for many in government, however, these pivots were disconcerting. Mseke, a 30-year veteran of the department of refugee affairs, wonders if the Burundians still waiting on citizenship papers will ever receive them under this administration.

Still, for many thousands, like Muguta, the deed is done. But she still wakes up at night sometimes with the feeling of Burundi pressing down on her chest. She still lives with what she calls “the refugee mentality,” casting a constant glance over her shoulder at the life that might have been if she hadn’t had to flee.

But then she reminds herself that she didn’t come here for a better life. She came here so that she might live at all. Occasionally, she’s even felt a surge of patriotism for her new country. Like in October 2015, when she voted in her first Tanzanian election. 

Afterward, an election official dipped her pinky finger in black ink to the second knuckle, and she walked out proudly, marked by her citizenship.

“I voted for the people who welcomed me, who fed me, who made me Tanzanian,” she says.

She had voted for Nyerere’s party, the CCM. She had voted for Magafuli.

This story is Part 11 of the series “On the Move: the faces, places, and politics of migration.”

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