Forging a New Path for Urban Refugees

“I went to a local church to ask for help. They assisted me with a place to stay and gave me some money for food. However, it did not take long for this money to run out. We were back where we started, in hunger and misery. I did not have a choice but to go back to the church and ask for more help. They again assisted me, this time with a small business loan for starting my own income-generating activity. With this money, I started a small business frying and selling cassava on the side of the street. But it did not take long for my family to be arrested as ‘illegal migrants’. Despite our refugee claim, we did not have a permit to live in Tanzania outside of the refugee camps.”

-Karen J., a refugee woman who fled to Tanzania with her children after her husband was murdered in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In response to refugee clients like Karen, Asylum Access Tanzania (AATZ) began advocating local government authorities for a permit for urban refugees living in Dar es Salaam. To our surprise, local authorities started extending an existing work permit program to refugees shortly after.

Under Tanzanian law, most refugees are required to live in refugee camps.  Permits to live outside them are rare and difficult to obtain. Yet thousands of refugees live outside camps in cities and towns across Tanzania, unwilling to make-do with overcrowded and unsanitary living conditions, and lured by the prospect of being able to work and feed their families.

AATZ first approached the Ministry of Home Affairs in April 2011 after many clients expressed interest in applying for a work permit. Although they are not economic migrants, they had few options to obtain legal status as Tanzanian law requires them to register as refugees when they first arrive. As most of them had lived in Dar es Salaam for some time, they were no longer eligible to apply for refugee status.

By September 2011, we were assisting refugees in applying for a permit that would not only allow them to move freely, but obtain safe and legal employment without living in fear of arrest and detention.

Designed for economic migrants whose primary livelihood was farming, the special Class A work permit is now available to urban refugees for the first time. Refugees could now apply for a work permit without being penalized for previous illegal entry and residency. Valid for two years, including the right of residency for spouse and children, the permit gave holders legal status and an empowered position to assert their rights as legal Tanzanian residents.

To apply for the permit, refugees have to fill out a form, pay a $50 administrative fee, and prove their nationality through documents from their consulate. AATZ assists them through the process and subsidizes half the administrative fee. Following this, each refugee must wait for weeks to obtain the permit.

Approximately 90 clients have received the permit from immigration authorities to date. At a focus group on the work permit program, many shared their experience about finding a job or starting small businesses. For most of the participants, the prospect of a work permit gave them renewed hope and confidence in building a new life.

“I imagined all the possibilities which will be opened for me and my family after getting the permit. That I could be able to do business openly, that I could be able to walk in the streets freely and the above all that the fear of being arrested or being harassed will soon be over,” Karen said in an interview with Asylum Access.

By working towards new but unconventional path to legal status for refugees who no longer qualify for refugees under Tanzanian law, AATZ is responding to the unique needs of the local refugee population to enable them to assert their fundamental human rights.

By Nadhifa Mahmoud, Asylum Access Tanzania Volunteer Legal Advocate and Communications Liaison, and Anna Chen, Communications and Development Associate.

Published February 2012