Dar es Salaam — President John Magufuli yesterday told off the people whom he said were benefitting from keeping refugees in Tanzania and urged the refugees--particularly those from Burundi--to voluntarily return to their home country.
"Let no one lie to you. Go back to your home countries and take part in development," said President Magufuli as he addressed residents of Tanganyika District in Katavi Region; an area known for being a gateway for refugees entering Tanzania from the neighbouring countries.
The President's remarks come less than a month after the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) asked Tanzania and Burundi to respect their commitments on refugee repatriation. UNHCR said it was important that refugees return to their countries without being forced.
Early this October, nearly 600 Burundian refugees from Tanzania returned to their country - being the first batch in the mass repatriation of hundreds of thousands of people who fled political violence in Burundi four years ago, the UN said.
Speaking for the first time since UNHCR's statement, President Magufuli noted that some refugees living in Tanzania engaged in criminal offences such as robbery, endangering state security and peace.
"Some of the refugees are civilized and have lived in Tanzania for many years and there are those who have even been granted citizenship. But there are a few who ruin the reputation of their fellow refugees because they engage in robbery around Tongwe Forests in Katavi Region," said the Head of State.
He said Burundi was now peaceful and there was no reason for refugees to continue staying in Tanzania.
He ordered the regional and district authorities and security organs in the region to effectively supervise security operations to mitigate the illegal migration of the refugees.
"We don't have a problem with civilized refugees, but don't force to be a refugee or seek to acquire the citizenship of another country while your country is already stable," he said. He added: "I acknowledge that there are people who benefit through the refugees as they get paid for keeping them."
He tasked Tanzania Peoples Defence Forces (TPDF) to safeguard Kilibasi Airport in Katavi in efforts to mitigate the illegal migration of refugees. He also ordered the 201st Brigade of Tabora to supervise the security operation in the entire region of Katavi.
"No one can mess up with this country. If there is a refugee who has been sent to interfere with our peace, he or she is lost," he warned.
More than 400,000 Burundians left the country following a surge of political violence in 2015 when President Pierre Nkurunziza ran for a third disputed term in office and opponents accused him of breaching the constitution.
Currently, over 300,000 Burundians are living in three camps in Tanzania's Kigoma Region, according to the UN. The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, said recently it had organised 590 Burundian refugees' journey home in coordination with the UN's International Organization of Migration (IOM).
It further urged the governments of Tanzania and Burundi to respect their commitments to uphold international obligations and ensure that any refugee returns remain voluntary and that no refugee or asylum seeker is returned to Burundi against their will.
A UN commission on Burundi reported last month that there was a risk of a fresh wave of atrocities as the 2020 election approaches in the tiny landlocked East African nation with its current political crisis unresolved.
But Burundi and Tanzania agreed in August to start repatriating the refugees, saying that conditions in Burundi had improved.
However, some refugees have expressed fears that they might be forcibly returned to Burundi, but government spokesman Hassan Abbasi was quoted recently saying that "nobody will be forced to go back".
Nevertheless, he insisted "Burundi is peaceful and they are busy preparing for elections next year".
"Tanzania respects the international agreements on refugees and will ensure the refugees' relocation process is handled carefully," he told reporters.