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Urbanisation and its discontents:

urban refugees in Tanzania

by Marc Sommers

This article explores the different labels under in the capital from those that did not.
Unlike the largely educated and politi-
which refugees in Dar es Salaam may be cised Burundians who maintained legal
right to urban residence, most who lived
categorised. It identifies and profiles different in Dar es Salaam illegally were poorly
educated and apolitical young men from
groups of urban refugee in Dar es Salaam rural backgrounds.2

and considers some common assumptions The separation between these two classes
of Burundi refugees also showed itself in
about urban refugees. their urban professions. Owing to their
permission to live in Dar es Salaam,

here appear to be four distinct Salaam thought this to be true. The reg- many higher class refugees could obtain
categories of urban refugee: (1) istered refugees in Dar es Salaam were employment in the formal sector.
the few who are officially defined from a variety of countries, such as Although some maintained that
as refugees and have permission to South Africa, Burundi, Uganda, Rwanda Tanzanians refused to hire them, others
reside in cities; (2) those officially and the Comoros Islands. With the found work with international organisa-
defined as refugees but lacking legal exception of Somali refugees - who in tions or obtained the necessary legal
rights to urban residence; (3) those who 1990-91 were pouring out of their home- documentation to run small enterprises
have come to an urban area to seek asy- land - these diverse groups were small in in the formal sector. Still, most of the
lum as a refugee at a UNHCR office; and number but generally united by class. Burundi refugee population in Dar es
(4) those who claim to be refugees but Nearly all of them were well-educated Salaam, as we shall see, participated
live without any institutional recognition and relatively wealthy members of their exclusively in the informal sector.
or assistance. respective national communities. In
addition, if one only searched out urban (2) Burundi refugees: urban
The article is based on field research in refugees at UNHCR offices, which refugees without legal sanction
Dar es Salaam in 1990-92 and 1996. In refugees periodically visit to discuss
addition to interviewing officials from specific issues, one might surmise that Refugees may only be able to migrate to
the Tanzanian government and agencies most urban refugees were male-headed cities from camps illegally. The move
working with refugees (such as UNHCR households, for few female household may seem worth the risk: despite the
and the Tanganyika Christian Refugee heads made their presence felt there. potential for danger and uncertainty in
Service), and refugees from a variety of Some officials in Dar es Salaam conse- an urban life, many refugees can at least
countries who had permission to live in quently drew a composite of the typical leave the institutional and regimented
Dar es Salaam, I also interviewed urban refugee as a well-heeled, upper- environment that commonly marks
Somalis who sought refugee status and class family man. refugee camp existence, hope to increase
the protection and provisions it offered, their economic situation, and obtain a
Burundians from refugee camps who Agency and government officials in Dar measure of autonomy in the process.
shunned recognition of their refugee es Salaam also tended to assume that Urban areas may also provide refugees
identity by others, and Mozambicans refugees from the same country shared with the opportunity to re-invent them-
who claimed to be refugees without ever similar outlooks about basic issues that selves as urban newcomers.
seeking official sanction. The following affected them all. But the Burundi case
are brief profiles of these four refugee in particular demonstrated that this The largest group of refugees residing in
categories. does not necessarily apply. Dar es Dar es Salaam were Burundi refugees,
Salaams Burundi refugee society, com- who, during my initial field research
(1) Urban refugees with legal prising ethnic Hutu, is secretive. Though
period in the early 1990s, were also the
sanction analysts such as Malkki1 assume that
largest refugee group in Tanzania. At
ethnic solidarity is particularly strong
that time, the entire population was offi-
In countries that host refugees, officials among such Central African Hutu
cially estimated at 155,000, but officials
from international humanitarian agen- groups, the Burundi refugees in Dar es
working with Burundi refugees speculated
cies and host governments may assume Salaam displayed a distinct lack of inter-
that the actual figure was probably
that the majority of refugees in cities nal cohesion and demonstrated how
250,000 or more. Most of the Burundi
have permission to be there. Most of the divided ethnic - and refugee - groups can
refugees who made it to Dar es Salaam
international agency and local govern- become. A striking class difference sepa-
were young men who had grown up in
ment officials interviewed in Dar es rated refugees with permission to reside

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one of three refugee settlements for living in camps to remain there. At the country of asylum. As the months
Burundi refugees in central Tanzania same time, however, Ministry of Home passed while UNHCR officials looked for
(Katumba, Ulyankulu and Mishamo). Affairs officials explained that a refugee another asylum country for Somalis who
These were refugees from the 1972 who could prove he or she was economi- lacked permission to remain in
selective genocide in their homeland.3 cally self-sufficient in Dar es Salaam Tanzania, UNHCR provided the Somalis
Food was generally plentiful in the set- might receive legal permission to reside with a weekly stipend until their cases
tlements but cash was hard to come by. there. What they did not mention, of were resolved. In 1990-91, as boatloads
As a result, many refugee parents strove course, was that refugees had to break of Somalis continued to reach Tanzanian
to send their eldest sons to the capital Tanzanian law just to get to the capital.4 shores, UNHCR officials worried that
to find work and send remittances back asylum seekers were occupying an
to them. Most of the young Burundi (3) Somalis in Dar es Salaam: the increasing proportion of their limited
refugee men that I met in town were asylum seekers country budget. This fuelled their suspi-
glad to be there, as migrating to the cap- cion that Somalis who were naturalised
ital bestowed social status upon them in Another common category of urban Tanzanians were representing them-
refugee society, and constituted a terrific refugee is the asylum seeker: people who selves as refugees in order to obtain the
adventure as well. Although life was enter a city in search of recognition and weekly stipend.
unusually difficult and potentially dan- support from UNHCR. In Dar es Salaam,
gerous in Dar es Salaam, few seemed to if the UNHCR Protection Officer identi- (4) Mozambicans as cultural
regret their shift to the city. fied a Somali as a refugee, then UNHCR refugees
would present the refugees profile to
The central problem for young Burundi the Eligibility Committee, which was Mozambican refugees in Dar es Salaam
refugee men in town, in their eyes, was comprised of Tanzanian government differ from those in the first three cate-
to avoid identification as a refugee. officials of various ministries. On a case gories in that the Mozambicans were nei-
Drawing on their familiarity with by case basis, this committee decided ther officially certified as refugees nor
Tanzanian society, they presented them- who would be granted permission to ever attempted to obtain certification. In
selves as Tanzanians. Lacking an identity reside in Tanzania and where they fact, although tens of thousands of
card to establish their citizenship, they would be allowed to live. The Mozambicans had been registered as
worked in the informal economy. Their committee permitted very refugees in southern Tanzania by the
clandestine behaviour also meant that few Somali refugees to early 1990s, UNHCR and Tanzanian gov-
UNHCR was entirely unaware of their remain in Dar es Salaam. ernment officials related that they rarely
location or activities. Refugees from this interacted with Mozambicans in Dar es
group perceived UNHCR officials as UNHCR is obliged to find Salaam at that time. Nevertheless, many
allies of the Tanzanian authorities, another host nation to of the Mozambicans I met in Tanzanias
whom they sought to avoid. These young accept refugees capital adamantly claimed to be
refugee men believed that UNHCR and who cannot refugees.
government officials would simply repa- stay in
triate them to the refugee settlements if their Categorising people as refugees is
they were discovered; they would then first generally thought to be a legal ques-
be at the mercy of the Settlement tion. However, investigating this kind
Commandant, from whom refugees of refugee opens up theoretical and
needed an exit permit to travel outside ethnographic considerations of
the settlements legally. refugee as a concept with local and
cultural meanings and reference, a sep-
Based on interviews with UNHCR arate enterprise from examining the
and government officials in Dar es perceptions and plight of people who
Salaam, this assessment was proba- have been identified as refugees in the
bly fairly accurate. The interviews larger legal and international frame-
also revealed a catch-22 sort of work.
contradiction within the framework
of early 1990s refugee law In considering this
in Tanzania. Settlement new endeavour as it
refugees needed a permit exists in Dar es
from their commandant, a Salaam, exploring
Tanzanian government the meaning of the
official, to migrate to the term refugee in
city. A permanent shift to Swahili (mkimbizi),
town was virtually impos- the citys predomi-
sible to obtain, but even nant language, is
temporary permits were instructive. The
difficult to get because word mkimbizi
the Tanzanian govern- itself derives not
ment, with UNHCR sup- from the act of
port, generally wanted the seeking refuge, as it
150,000 Burundi refugees does in English, but

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from kukimbia, a verb meaning to run. Conclusion: challenging assump-
Literally, mkimbizi means a person who tions about urban refugees It is also a matter of personal choice
runs, which implies cowardice. Many that leads so many refugees to cities in
Burundi refugees despised their mkim- Early in this paper, I reviewed three com- the first place. Refugees are victims, but
bizi label for this reason. On the other mon assumptions held by officials who they do not seek to remain victimised.
hand, young Tanzanian urban migrants interact with urban refugees: (i) that Instead of passively waiting for years or
frequently call themselves economic most refugees in cities have legal sanc- decades to return to their homes, most
refugees, as the term both calls attention tion to reside there; (ii) that urban refugees try to make the best of things
to the dire economic situations in the refugees are mainly comprised of upper- during their forced exile, often accepting
rural villages that they are running from class men and their families; and (iii) great risks. In Africa, this increasingly
and asserts their right to reside in the that refugees who come from the same means sneaking into cities, and it is in
capital. country or ethnic group tend to have this light that the rise of urban African
similar perspectives on issues of shared refugee populations should be seen: as a
The ethnic Makonde traditional home- concern. The findings provided here dramatization of the strong desire
land rests on both sides of the remote argue against two additional commonly- among increasing numbers of Africans,
and porous border between Mozambique held assumptions about the identity and and their like-minded counterparts
and Tanzania. While crossing this border behaviour of urban refugees. across the globe, to urbanise. Refugees
can be a casual affair - and few Makonde who migrate to urban areas are actually
carry passports - in cultural terms the First, it is usually assumed that refugees a particularly vulnerable kind of urban
two countries are distinct. The land of seek the rights, protections and provi- migrant - migrant refugees, perhaps -
Mozambique, which most young sions that an officially recognised and they should be considered in a way
Makonde in Dar es Salaam have yet to refugee identity can provide. Such sup- that accounts for their aspirations, their
visit, has been culturally configured as a posed entitlements do not necessarily rights and their connections to the larger
place where old Makonde traditions con- arrive. UNHCRs ability to protect host nation community where they
tinue to be practised, unfettered by the refugees is limited - a UNHCR protection reside.
changes of the twentieth century. A office of two or three people may be
Mozambican Makonde describes a per- responsible for protecting hundreds of Marc Sommers is a consultant and
son who follows old ethnic traditions, thousands of refugees. Living in camps research fellow at the African
and older Makonde who wear chalechale, as refugees may actually turn people Studies Center, Boston University,
a distinctive form of facial tattooing, are into targets of exploitation from which USA.
considered particularly Mozambican they have no protection. Burundi
regardless of their actual place of origin. refugees living clandestinely in Dar es His forthcoming book, entitled Fear
Conversely, a Tanzanian Makonde con- Salaam, for example, frequently spoke in Bongoland: Burundi Refugees in
fers a non-traditional or modern about Tanzanian government officials Urban Tanzania, describes the
description upon a person. who took advantage of them in their attractions of Dar es Salaam, or
refugee settlement homes. For them, it Bongoland, to young migrant and
Regardless of the perceived distinctions was better to live in a city, be seen as a Burundi refugee men and details the
between Mozambican and Tanzanian Tanzanian national and conceal their clandestine lives of Burundi refugees
Makonde, most Makonde still consider troublesome refugee identity. At the residing there. It is scheduled to be
Mozambique their true homeland. Thus, same time, some ethnic Makonde inter- published by Berghahn Books in late
they told me in 1991, only after viewed in the early 1990s had left a war 1999.
Mozambiques then-warring parties - zone in Mozambique and could have
Renamo and Frelimo - made peace would qualified as refugees in Tanzania. Yet
Tanzanian Makonde return home to they had no interest in seeking such 1 Malkki, LH 1995 Purity and exile: violence, memory,
Mozambique. official recognition even though they and national cosmology among Hutu refugees in
Tanzania Chicago and London: University of Chicago
openly claimed to be refugees. Press.
Makonde claims to a national and
refugee identity are therefore made on Second, it should not be assumed that 2 The context and implications of this issue are
addressed in detail in: Sommers, M 1995 Representing
an entirely different basis than any of refugee only means what the official Refugees: Assessing the Role of Elites in Burundi
the other refugee groups discussed definition contains, or what it should Refugee Society Disasters: The Journal of Disaster
Studies and Management 19(1): 19-25 (March).
above. Even the Burundi refugees who contain. For as the cases of the ethnic
were born within Tanzanias borders can Makonde and the Tanzanian rural-urban 3 Lemarchand, R & Martin, D 1974 Selective genocide
claim Burundi nationality because their migrant reveal, vernacular meanings of in Burundi (Report No 20). London: The Minority
Rights Group.
parents received their refugee identity refugee differ from the internationally
from UNHCR when they entered accepted definition. In Tanzania, for 4 The relationship between the Tanzanian government
Tanzania in 1972-73. But a combination example, a person can claim to be a and all refugees residing there is currently undergoing
changes, as the Tanzanian government prepares to
of factors has created a kind of interna- refugee without ever crossing a border: enact still tougher, more restrictive laws for refugees.
tional informality for the Makonde living the fear a migrant may feel arises from
along the Mozambique-Tanzania border, economic hardship, not political perse-
allowing the Makonde room not only to cution or war. At the same time a
claim national affiliation on their terms Makonde can become a refugee as a
but, in some cases, redefine the meaning matter of personal choice, since it con-
of refugee. fers a connection to their perceived
homeland across a nearby border.

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