Tanzanian Government Gives Refugees Their Day in ‘Court’

After over three years of silence, the Tanzanian government began reviewing applications for refugee legal status again this May, a process that determines whether refugees would be granted the right to safety and the right to remain in Tanzania legally.

The National Eligibility Council (NEC) is a group of government leaders created to handle refugee affairs, but have not met since 2010, leaving refugees without access to the means to obtain official refugee status and protection from deportation. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency’s September 2013 fact sheet, there are a total of 573 registered asylum seekers in Tanzania. In addition, there are also many more asylum seekers who live within local communities who are unable or unwilling to apply for refugee status due to fear or mistrust of local authorities.

Choosing to apply for refugee status is a big decision in Tanzania.  If a refugee woman client chooses to seek refugee status with NEC, she and her children would have to travel from Dar es Salaam to a refugee camp along the border, where her life would be very different. Tanzanian law requires that refugees apply for legal status within seven days upon arrival, and that they reside in designated refugee camps. Once an application for refugee status is submitted, they must then remain in a refugee camp until a decision is made, unless they can obtain a rarely granted permit to leave the camp.

With NEC’s irregular track record, many refugees have chosen to forgo the right to obtain refugee status altogether, preferring to risk detention rather than confinement within a refugee camp far away from their home.

Asylum Access Tanzania has helped 18 refugees apply for refugee status to date, including several who have successfully received legal status.

The re-opening of the government-run refugee status determination (RSD) process is a significant step forward, and one that we applaud as progress towards bringing Tanzania’s practices closer to its human rights obligations, including the Tanzanian Refugee Act of 1998 and ratified international protections under the 1969 Organisation of African Unity Refuge Convention and 1951 Refugee Convention.

In hopes of promoting that other urban refugees in Tanzania emerge from living in the shadows, we look forward to seeing further improvements in the RSD and Tanzanian refugee policy. While NEC’s next steps remain unclear, we hope that this will be one of many steps forward for refugee rights in Tanzania. There remains a great need for improved and regular, reliable processes within the refugee status determination (RSD) process. With NEC meeting again, we urge the development and implementation of protocols and procedures that provide clear information to the refugee community and protect refugees’ right to safety and due process in the RSD process.

In pursuit of durable solution for refugees, many of whom have spent years without access to rights and the means to rebuild their lives in Tanzania, AATZ continues to advocate for an urban refugee policy that would allow refugees to live and work in local communities, instead of residing in camps.

By Asylum Access Tanzania Director Janemary Ruhundwa