The government of Tanzania on Thursday granted citizenship to 162,000 refugees from Burundi. Most of the Burundian refugees in Tanzania are part of a group dubbed the “1972 caseload” — those who fled Burundi following a 1972 civil war.  Unlike most other refugees in Tanzania, they have been living outside of camps and among Tanzanians. They are essentially already integrated into the local economy and community, and the move by Tanzania to extend citizenship is the final step toward a sustainable solution for these Burundian refugees.

This unparalleled decision was hailed by UNHCR chief Antonio Guterres as “historic.” The UNHCR noted that “this is the first time that any state has naturalized such a large group of refugees under the protection of UNHCR in a single move.” Tanzania still hosts about 270,000 refugees (including 90,000 in UNHCR camps), and naturalization is an option the government is limiting to the 1972 Burundian refugees.

Burundians who fled violence in later years are not able to avail themselves the naturalization option, and about 36,000 remain in the Mtabila camp in northwestern Tanzania. These refugees have not been extended the same opportunities has their predecessors and the Tanzanian government has undertaken controversial measures to deal with this group.

Many rights organizations have accused Tanzania of forcing the return of refugees living in Mtabila, by limiting income-generation activities, access to schooling and other basic services, and even going as far as bulldozing homes in settlements. These tactics — which are designed to push refugees to leave as soon as possible all the while creating a disincentive for them to seek local integration — have made it difficult for the voluntary repatriation process (which the UNHCR coordinates) to be truly voluntary or in accordance with the principle of non-refoulement.
Tanzania, while generally regarded as upholding a decent standard of protection for refugees in spite of the questionable policies mentioned above, was not necessarily likely to carry out the unprecedented move of naturalizing tens of thousands of people. This underscores the idea that, given the right conditions, refugees are able to integrate with a host community, and positively impact it. Particularly as refugee rights continue to be ignored and displaced persons are seen as a burden to bear, this decision represents an important milestone in the ongoing evolution of international refugee protection.

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