The Episcopal Church Welcomes You
» Site Map   » Questions    

« Return
Bishops visit refugees in Tanzania, insist 'we must do more'

[Episcopal News Service]  Claiming "we must do more for the world's refugees," a delegation of Episcopal Church bishops and staff visited four refugee camps in Western Tanzania June 30-July 1.

The camps claim more than 70,000 residents -- mostly Burundian Hutus -- in the Kigoma region of the country. The groups met with refugees individually and in groups, as well as with staff from NGOs and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and visited schools, medical facilities, and processing centers.

Delegation members returned energized to advocate for both the Episcopal Church and the United States' government to do more to help the situation in Tanzania, as well as other refugees around the world.

"As a church and as a nation, we must do more for the world's refugees," Bishop Neil Alexander of Atlanta said as he and others from the delegation toured the camps. Bishop Suffragan Catherine Roskam of New York noted that "thousands of refugee lives are put on hold because the world cannot respond fully and compassionately enough to this extraordinary humanitarian crisis."

UNHCR, which served more than 480,000 refugees in Tanzania in 2004, hosted the Episcopal delegation, providing staff to translate and assist in the visit. The Kibondo camps are located in western Tanzania, a region said to have two seasons--one of red dust, the other of mud. Governments that permit UNHCR to establish camps for refugees require that they locate in more remote areas away from urban centers. These areas are generally poorer than other parts of the host country.

UNHCR is currently working in 116 countries to care for an estimated 17 million refugees worldwide. Vulnerable women, children and the elderly make up approximately 80 percent of a "normal" refugee population.

The agency, which administers the camps, says that refugees have three options available to them: repatriation, if the country from which they fled is stable and they can return in safety; local integration, if the host country is willing to absorb and extend legal status to them; and resettlement in a third country, if the other options don't work.

Tanzania, host to the fourth largest number of refugees in the world, has in the past consistently opened its doors to refugees from neighboring countries such as Burundi where civil upheaval has occurred. But lately the Tanzanian government has not offered local integration as an option, and has rewritten its laws to require that refugees -- even Burundians -- considered by the UNHCR to have a prima facie basis for being granted refugee status must first be screened by the Government of Tanzania's Home Affairs Ministry. This has resulted in some number of refugees, particularly from Rwanda, being denied refugee status. Resettlement is often the only option for these persons.

Officials hope that, when conditions permit, most of the refugees will be able to return to Burundi. Others might be able to remain in Tanzania if the government reconsiders its view of local integration. But others must be resettled in "third party" countries, such as the United States, if other solutions fail. Hundreds of refugees in Tanzania have been in limbo status for years, prevented from getting on with their lives.

Alexander said that "while there are many pressing problems for the refugees, the most urgent now is the severe food shortage which brings untold suffering to thousands." The World Food Program (WFP) norm for daily food rations is 2,100 calories, but the norm in the Tanzanian camps is now 1,348 calories daily. The reduced food ration is the result of a WFP miscalculation of the number of refugees who would be repatriated, funding shortfalls following donor country cutbacks after the Asian tsunami, and emerging food crises in countries such as Zimbabwe.

The cutbacks have their most severe impact on women and children. Young girls skip school and, with their mothers, sneak from the camps to forage for food, placing themselves at great risk as they leave the protection of the camps. The food problem is exacerbated by the government's decision to limit the distance refugees can travel from the camps. The restriction means that refugees are no longer able to farm small plots or earn money working for local farmers, ways that refugees customarily compensate for food shortages.

The camp closings stemmed from the murder of a camp police officer in Mtendeli Camp on June 19. Local Tanzanian authorities attributed the murder to a refugee, although no investigation has confirmed the accusation. Nevertheless, local  authorities restricted all movement of refugees from the camps, heightening tensions in the camps and the host community. Often these tensions result in greater incidents of domestic and other violence.

Both bishops noted the possibility of an approach to the refugee crisis which includes host communities in the provision of services and infrastructure improvement, so that both refugees and host communities receive benefits from the presence of refugees in the region. The fact that Tanzania has had a long history of hosting refugees suggests that the rights of refugees might be respected while extending benefits to adjacent host communities.

In conversations, refugees reported that school uniforms are considered necessary for children to attend school, since in refugee camps children otherwise have no clothes or clothes so tattered that they will not leave their huts—just one example of where a seemingly minor problem becomes a major barrier in giving refugees access to a vital service.

"Wouldn't it be wonderful to support a center where refugee women could be trained to sew and then could earn money by making school uniforms," said Roskam. "Refugees would have money for food and more children, particularly girls, would attend school."  The bishops recognized the excellent work being done by the Tanzanian Christian Refugee Services (TCRS), which receives funding from Church World Service (CWS), among others, and fully supports both a secondary school and training center for vocational skills at Kanembwa Camp.

UNHCR is required to offer only primary education to camp residents and generally parallels the mandatory educational offerings of the host community. Therefore, partners such as the TCRS, which can offer more services such as secondary education, are critical.  The bishops pointed out that at Kanembwa, a camp where TCRS is operational, a greater degree of hope was apparent as children and parents are learning skills that will enable them to lead fuller lives after they leave the camp.

The delegation had extensive meetings with UNHCR partners who provided important additional information and insights on the conditions of refugees in the camps. The partners included TCRS, International Rescue Committee, the Relief to Development Society, Southern Africa Extension Unit, Tanzania Water and Environment Sanitation, and WFP.

The meetings and those with the refugee delegations  touched on other important issues such as the need for facilities to carry and store water in order to improve hygiene and have more water for planting, environmental issues stemming from the cutting down of trees and burning of wood for charcoal, and health matters.

Malaria prevention is a major concern in the camps, especially for children, and there are difficult issues pertaining to medical protocols available for HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria -- with differences in drug treatments between countries, as well as the availability and cost of drugs which impact on disease prevention as well as treatment.

Mkugwa Camp is home to refugees who are high risk and thus logical contenders for resettlement in another country. Those at risk include refugees from mixed marriages of Hutus and Tutsis and those whose political involvement makes their return home impossible. Of special concern to the group was the need to offer resettlement to some number of these persons as well as others who, either because of their vulnerability or protracted time in the camps, needed to be given a chance to move forward with their lives.

The delegation was able to hear lengthy accounts from two refugees who had recently arrived in Tanzania. A 25-year-old Sudanese Christian told of his painful journey from southern Sudan to Darfur, where he was attacked by the janjaweed (Arab militia), to Kenya and finally to Tanzania. A Somali Bantu widow wept as she recalled how in early June she had lost both her husband and two children who were murdered in the Democratic Republic of Congo. She has not been able to find four of her other children who escaped into the countryside during the attack. Neither family can return to their country of origin and are therefore likely candidates for resettlement.

"The Statue of Liberty should be as relevant today in opening our doors to refugees as it has been in the past," said Roskam. "These are families who through no fault of their own cannot return to their country of birth."

"We are a generous people, a generous church, and a generous nation -- but we must and can do more," Roskam concluded. "Education and training, better water facilities and medical assistance are all making a difference for the refugees. These are the people who are among the targets of the Millennium Development Goals to cut worldwide poverty in half by 2015. Also, some have no hope of remaining in Tanzania and should benefit from resettlement in the U.S. or another third country."

Alexander agreed: "The warehousing of refugees for long periods demands a response which acknowledges that refugees have rights that cannot be enjoyed if they are confined indefinitely without any prospect of leading full, productive lives. Our time with the refugees has given us a renewed sense of mission that we look forward to sharing in the months ahead."

In addition to Alexander and Roskam, the delegation included the Rev. Canon Benjamin Musoke-Lubega, who for the past five years has served as staff officer for Africa at the Episcopal Church Center in New York and now will assume the Africa portfolio for Trinity Wall Street in Manhattan, and Richard Parkins, director of Episcopal Migration Ministries, both of whom organized the trip through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Maureen Shea, director of Government Relations for the Episcopal Church, was also a part of the delegation.

Parkins and Shea spent several days in Dar es Salaam meeting with the UNHCR staff, various NGOs or implementing partners, and persons involved in studying the current refugee situation in Tanzania. Additionally, time was spent interviewing refugees comprising the urban refugee community in Dar es Salaam.

The mission was undertaken as a way of giving greater visibility to and understanding of the worldwide refugee crisis within the Episcopal Church.