Naturalization in Tanzania: Lessons from the Ebb and Flow of the Process

In December 2007, the Government of Tanzania announced its willingness to offer naturalization as part of a comprehensive solution for Burundian refugees who had been in Tanzania since 1972. This policy announcement was a surprise to many observers of refugee issues in Tanzania in light of the country’s restrictive approach to asylum since the 1990s —an approach which was ultimately formalized in Tanzania’s 2003 National Refugee Policy. By June 2010, however, Tanzania’s newfound willingness to offer naturalization saw 162,156 applications for naturalization approved. The process then stalled, and the Government of Tanzania became more reluctant to see the process to its full conclusion. Then, to the surprise and delight of many, the Government of the Tanzania announced on the margins of UNHCR’s Executive Committee meeting in Geneva in October 2014 that it had decided to go ahead and fully implement the program. Tanzania’s President, Jakaya Kikwete, granted citizenship to all approved applicants, along with their dependents born after the application process, on October 14, 2014.

The granting of citizenship to Burundian refugees by the Government of Tanzania should be commended as a significant and unprecedented response to a protracted refugee situation. However, the process remains poorly understood, from the factors that resulted in the suspension of the program in 2010 to those that led to its final implementation in 2014. Was this the successful implementation of a global policy on resolving protracted refugee situations? And what impact did the process have on the rights of refugees? In response to these questions, we will briefly outline the factors that explain the initiation of the process and its suspension. Drawing on recent fieldwork conducted in the region, we will also consider the impact of the process on the rights of the refugees themselves. While the factors that led to the full implementation of the process in October 2014 remain a mystery, we believe that a more detailed understanding of national politics and local realities are important for understanding the ebb and flow of the naturalization process in Tanzania and its potential application elsewhere.

The Naturalization Process: Origins and  Evolution

Shortly after a significant victory for Tanzania’s ruling party in the 2005 elections, the Government of Tanzania informed UNHCR that it wanted to close the remaining camp for Burundian refugees in Tanzania, Mtabila, by encouraging voluntary repatriation. These discussions initially did not address the future of the 1972 Burundians remaining in the ‘Old Settlements’ of Katumba, Mishamo and Ulyankulu, as this group had been self-reliant since the mid-1980s and had not been included in UNHCR’s Tanzania program since 1985. In a meeting of the Tripartite Commission in 2006, however, the governments of Burundi and Tanzania expressed their desire to close both Mtabila and the ‘Old Settlements’. While this was unexpected, UNHCR was nonetheless able to propose a response that became known as the Tanzania Comprehensive Solutions Strategy (“TANCOSS”).

The Tripartite Commission

During the subsequent meeting of the Tripartite Commission, in June 2007, UNHCR accepted the proposal to close both the camp and settlements hosting Burundian refugees while raising the possibility that repatriation may not be the best solution for all refugees in the Old Settlements. Instead, UNHCR noted that it had not had a presence in the Old Settlements for some twenty years, and that a solution strategy for this population would therefore be best developed with the support of further study of the conditions and intentions of those refugees in the Old Settlement. With the agreement of the two governments, the Old Settlements Task Force was established as a sub-group of the Tripartite Commission and tasked with the development of a solutions strategy for refugees remaining in the three settlements.

This agreement led to a series of initiatives, led by UNHCR with the support of the two governments, which unfolded in a notably short period of time. First, a population census was conducted in the three settlements in July 2007. Second, an individual registration process was conducted in the three settlements between August and October 2007. Third, a socio-economic assessment of the settlements was conducted by an independent consulting group. This survey also asked refugees to identify their preference between repatriation to Burundi and local integration in Tanzania as a possible durable solution. In response, some 79% of refugees identified the acquisition of Tanzanian citizenship as their preferred durable solution, with the remaining 21% opting for repatriation. While the survey has been critiqued for not fully describing to respondents the specifics and implications of their choice, the results clearly indicated the overwhelming preference of the refugees to pursue naturalization.

A Three Pillar Approach

Building from these results, a “three pillar” approach was approved at the Tripartite Commission meeting in Bujumbura in December 2007. “Pillar One” involved the repatriation of some 46,000 individuals to Burundi while “Pillar Two” involved the processing of citizenship applications for some 162,000 individuals who wished to pursue naturalization in Tanzania. “Pillar Three” involved the relocation of naturalized refugees from the settlements and their integration in new areas of Tanzania. On 12 February 2008, UNHCR launched a supplementary appeal, calling on donors to contribute just over US$34 million to support a comprehensive solution for the 1972 Burundian refugees in Tanzania. While no specific timeline was detailed in the appeal, UNHCR did note that “the opportunity for a facilitated naturalization process is time-bound, and providing adequate resources to complete it by the end of 2008 is critical to achieving success in this programme.”

In March 2008, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, officially launched the TANCOSS process during a visit to Tanzania. Repatriation to Burundi from the settlements began in March 2008, and in June 2010 the Minister of Home Affairs stated in the National Assembly that 162,156 of the 164,312 applications for Tanzanian citizenship had been approved.

In parallel to what was thus seen as a successful and expeditious realization of “Pillar One” and “Pillar Two,” plans were being developed to support the relocation and local integration of refugees from the Old Settlements, now referred to as “Newly Naturalized Tanzanians” (“NNTs”). Ultimately, the 2011-15 United Nations Development Assistant Plan (“UNDAP”) included a total of $103 million intended to facilitate the relocation and integration of NNTs across Tanzania and to enhance the absorption capacity of receiving communities.

Notwithstanding these investments in the relocation process, however, there was no progress in the naturalization program between June 2010 and the government’s announcement in October 2014. In fact, several statements by the Government of Tanzania during this period suggested declining government commitment to the process and the possibility that the decision to grant citizenship could be reversed. The delay caused particular concerns for refugees and observers of the process, especially as UNHCR seemed unable to intervene in the process to encourage its implementation.

Explanatory Factors

As argued elsewhere (see Milner, 2014) global refugee policy played a marginal role in Tanzania’s initial decision to offer citizenship. Instead, the decision to facilitate naturalization was motivated more by changing relations between Tanzania and Burundi, the political abilities of UNHCR’s Representative to Tanzania, dynamics within Tanzania’s ruling party, and Tanzania’s prior history of naturalizing Rwandan refugees in the 1980s. In contrast, Tanzanian electoral politics, power struggles within the CCM, and the shifting position of President Kikwete within Tanzanian politics best explain the lack of progress in implementing the naturalization program between 2010 and 2014. The fact that President Kikwete was not able to run for re-election in 2015, coupled with his desire to prevent Tanzania from reneging on an international commitment, may also partially explain why citizenship was ultimately granted in 2014. Many of these factors are bound-up in broader shifts in the local, national and regional politics of Tanzania since independence. As such, a key lesson from the Tanzanian experience is that factors unrelated to the presence of refugees broadly explain the ebb and flow of a naturalization policy in Tanzania since 2007. Such factors will likely remain important when considering the possible encouragement of a similar response to protracted refugee situations in Africa.

Naturalization’s  Impact on  Refugees’  Rights

 Despite major delays and setbacks in the process of naturalization, in October 2014 the majority of Burundian refugees received Tanzanian citizenship. In the following, we discuss the effects that implementation of the TANCOSS policy has had, and continues to have, on the rights of the people concerned. This section draws on fieldwork research conducted in April-June 2015. In total,  fifty-four interviews were conducted, out of which  eleven were with Tanzanians living in the settlements,  thirty-eight with former Burundian refugees, and five with officials involved in the naturalization process.

Right to Freedom of Movement

A significant majority of the respondents singled out freedom of movement as the most important right acquired through their new citizenship. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights provides that States shall afford refugees the right to move freely within the host State. However, many countries, including Tanzania, specify in their national laws that refugees should live in designated refugee camps and that their movement must be regulated. Ultimately, these laws not only limit refugees’ mobility, but also restrict their access to other rights such as employment and education. It is important to note that prior to naturalization, many Burundians had migrated to and from the settlements. However, despite refugees’ ability to circumvent the rules, traveling has always meant applying for permits, potential harassment, and anxiety. Thus, for the people concerned, acquisition of citizenship is intertwined with freedom of movement. According to former refugees, the right to move freely is a privilege that can significantly improve their quality of life. These responses strongly resonate with arguments of scholars who advocate for recognizing and protecting refugees’ right to mobility as a solution to their economic and other livelihood needs.

Political Rights

Half of the respondents pointed to voting and running for political positions as the second most important set of rights acquired through access to citizenship. Exile effectively excludes refugees, both physically and symbolically, from participation in the political community of their state of origin to which they are unwilling and/or unable to return. A situation of naturalization changes these dynamics. As James C. Hathaway argues:

By granting the refugee the right to participate in the public life of the state, naturalization eliminates the most profound gap in the rights otherwise available to refugees, since full political rights are not guaranteed to refugees under the Refugee Convention, nor to non-citizens under general principles of international human rights law.

Among the refugees, excitement about political participation is demonstrated on two levels: it refers both to the ability to select representatives, but also to hold office. Previously, Burundians were allowed to select their village leaders, while Tanzanians appointed the higher authorities.

By becoming citizens, former refugees became entitled to take part in the political life of the country, and they were allowed to cast their votes in the October 2015 Tanzanian general elections. The right to vote constitutes a significant element of the refugees’ conceptualization of their newly acquired citizenship.

Right to Remain

For the Burundian refugees, the state of protracted displacement was marked by decades of insecurity and inability to plan for the future. People explained that they were never sure how long they would be allowed to stay in Tanzania, and that this lack of stability generated further concerns. The feelings of insecurity escalated at the time of suspension of naturalization (2010-2014). In the years when it was unclear if naturalization was going to be completed, disruptive rumors and anxiety spread in the settlements. For the refugees, acquisition of citizenship stands as a guarantee of their right to indefinitely remain in Tanzania.

Moreover, former refugees tend to juxtapose the value of their newly acquired citizenship with the unsafe situation in Burundi. In April 2015, civil unrest broke out in Bujumbura in protest of President Nkurunzinza’s third term in office. Following these events, 100,000 Burundians fled again to Tanzania. In total, since April 2015, hundreds of people have been killed and more than 200,000 have fled to Rwanda, Congo, Uganda, and Tanzania as a result of political violence. Virtually every family in the settlements has connections with others who repatriated to Burundiand who since fled again to Tanzania in the midst of continued instability in Burundi. These regional developments strongly influence the meaning and value people attach to their Tanzanian citizenship: they perceive it as a symbol of security, both in terms of physical safety and ability to plan for the future.

Contested Issues

Despite the optimism surrounding the final implementation of TANCOSS, there are still many contested issues. At least 40,000 applications are still pending, and it is unclear how and when they are going to be finalized. The Ministry of Home Affairs contends that the Settlement Commandant is meant to remain in place until the pending cases are resolved. For the former refugees, the continued presence of the Commandant symbolizes the incompleteness of naturalization. However, the major challenge of opening the camps and eliminating the previous governance structure is not necessarily the issue of unresolved cases. In fact, the most complicated is the question of how to secure rights to land and property for the naturalized refugees. If the institution of the Settlement Commandant is abolished and the settlements are dissolved, the land will revert to the status it had prior to the establishment of the settlement in the 1972, meaning that it would not belong to the refugees (Section 16/1998 Refugees Act). It is unclear how former refugees are going to assert their rights following the dismantling of the camps and if they will be compensated for their investments in the settlements over the past  forty-plus years.


The decision of the Tanzania government to grant citizenship to more than 162,000 refugees sets a unique and laudable example of resolving a protracted refugee situation. Naturalization allowed former refugees to assert their rights to freedom of movement, political participation, and remaining in Tanzania. However, it was not a smooth process and it remains incomplete. There are still many contested issues, such as refugees’ property rights and a large number of pending cases. For many refugees, access to land is a prerequisite for achieving sustainable integration, and questions of property and land rights should be included in the process of formulating naturalization policies. Moreover, at the time when naturalization was suspended, UNHCR seemed unable to intervene in the process to encourage its implementation and refugees were not informed about the situation. An improved flow of information between the refugees, the Tanzanian Government, and UNHCR should be facilitated. Finally, when considering the possible encouragement of a similar response to protracted refugee situations elsewhere, it will be crucial to pay attention to the attitudes towards naturalization at the level of local governments, leadership’s commitment to naturalization, and availability of adequate funding.

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