“Historic action”, that’s how UNHCR and analysts have called the decision of Tanzanian government to grant citizenship to more that 162,000 Burundian refugees who have been living there for nearly four decades now.

Visiting the Katumba settlement of the so called “1972 Burundian refugees” last Thursday, UN High Commissionner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres praised the Tanzanian government for its "unprecedented generosity and courageous decision" in finding lasting solutions for these Burundian refugees. He also called on donor countries to respond by helping Tanzania integrate its new citizens.

In 2000, a peace process started in Burundi and the first successful, post-conflict, general elections were held in 2005. UNHCR has assisted the voluntary repatriation of over 500,000 Burundian refugees from neighbouring countries, mainly Tanzania.

In 2008, Tanzanian government offered the remaining refugees a choice of either granting citizenship or repatriating them in Burundi. An estimated 54,000 living in refugees camps consecutively to 1993 civil war chose to return home.

The 162,000 new citizens of Tanzania are mostly Hutus who fled Burundi in 1972 to escape ethnic violence which left more than 200,000 people killed.  These refugees were no longer confined to refugee settlements and were already largely integrated into Tanzania's society and economy. After over 30 years they were very reluctant to return back to Burundi and have been advocating for naturalisation for a long time.

Explaining the reasons behind the decision, Tanzanian Interior Minister, Lawrence Masha, said "We felt that it was not good for them - but also for the security of Tanzania - to have a group of close to 200,000 who have no place to call home. As citizens of Tanzania, they are free to live everywhere within the country and they will have access to social services like any other Tanzanians", Masha told AlertNet.

Last January I visited Muriza peace village, in the Eastern province of Ruyigi, where some returnees are facing all kinds of difficulties to reintegrate, certain inhabitants of the village, especially those who came from Tanzania, told me that they were tempted by a second exile. According to them, livelihoods are better in Tanzania. However, they have already made their decision and have now to rebuild together with other Burundians a peaceful and prosperous society.

Local Correspondent for Burundi, 22 April 2010