Refugee Livelihoods in Tanzania

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“We needed to seek asylum somewhere where there was peace. Tanzania was the closest country. But to live, we need something to live, somewhere to sleep. We didn’t come with anything like money,” says Lwenga, a Congolese refugee in Dar es Salaam. He tells this to me as he explains why he, other Congolese and Tanzanians are working together in a small soap-making business.

It’s not an easy business. Lwenga and Esale—another refugee—must take several kilos of the boiled fruit of the oil palm tree and press them in what they call a “local machine” to extract the oil. This takes two men and several hours. “With this machine,” says Lwenga, “it takes the whole day. You arrive, start extracting and then you can work until night.”

Still, the soap-making business illustrates the creative ways that urban refugees in Tanzania support themselves, and the challenges they face as they try to rebuild their lives. Soap-making is a skill that Lwenga and Esale brought with them from the Democratic Republic of the Congo where, Esale says, they often had to make their own soap.

To start the business, they had to depend on the hospitality of Tanzanians as well. They boil the palm oil fruit and extract the oil in the backyard of a Tanzanian woman. They keep the oil in the home of another Tanzanian who is also part of the business. By working with Tanzanians, Lwenga and Esale demonstrate that hosting refugees outside camps benefits both refugees and members of the host population.

Still, Lwenga and Esale face challenges. Tanzania does not have an urban refugee policy – meaning that officially recognized refugees and asylum seekers must live in refugee camps. There is little infrastructure to support refugees in Dar es Salaam, and refugees have little access to microfinance or capital to help them expand their businesses. Says Esale, “We cannot ask to borrow money. They are afraid. They doubt very much. They think we will flee.”

Without access to capital to, for example, buy an automated press, Lwenga and Esale can’t expand their business. “You can make five, six or ten bars of soap,” describes Lwenga, “but then as you’re selling them, you have to eat, so, at the end of the day, you still have nothing.”

Tanzania has made the lives of many refugees easier by allowing irregular migrants, including Lwenga and Esale, to obtain residence permits that let them work without fear. As Lwenga says, “you cannot do anything if you are not free.” But Lwenga and Esale might be able to contribute much more to Tanzania with better support and recognition for urban refugees.

Photos and text by AATZ VLA Christian Pangilinan

Published in February 2012