World Refugee Day was on June 20th 2016. Today is not the 20th of June. Or even June. I had meant to write a blog post on or around World Refugee Day. You know, to harness the global energy and focus the mind of everyday citizens on refugees. But I… forgot/was busy/had other things to do/didn’t fully engage. The Parable of the Refugees and the Blog Post perhaps.
Kigoma has been home to refugees for decades. Not the Kigoma town I live in, nor the Kigoma region our farmers work in. Refugees live in camps. They do not live in towns. They exist in the ultimate Non-Space. The refugees have been/are largely from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the Republic of Burundi, or the Republic of Rwanda. They are not from the United Republic of Tanzania. Not even the ones born here.
Their numbers have fluctuated with the ebb and flow of the politics and conflicts in the neighbourhood. In 2001, there were well over a million refugees in Kigoma’s refugee camps. In 2014 numbers were apparently down to under 100,000 in just one remaining camp – the hardest of the hard cases from the DRC. Everyone else had been sent home, accepted by Tanzania, or (in a minority cases) had been sent abroad for re-settlement.
Currently three camps are open. Refugee numbers started increasing when the President of Burundi claimed a disputed third term. Immediately following a failed coup in May 2015, refugee numbers from Burundi spiked. I am told a lot of these refugees are ‘re-refugees’ having more or less only just returned to Burundi from their first stint as a refugee in Tanzania. Their roots were still shallow.
Recently I saw some refugees. That may sound odd given their long term presence here. Surely you can see them every day. Or at least sometimes. But refugees are not part of Kigoma. Or Tanzania. They are kept separate. You cannot interact with them, meet them, talk to them. You do not see them. Even here, a ground-zero for global refugees, where hundreds of thousands have lived/are living within kilometres of my house where I live with my girlfriend, my dog, my vegetable garden, they are “the other” – still “refugees”.
I recently caught up with a friend who once worked in Kigoma with refugees for several years. I was talking about Seed Change’s work and our interaction with local government. She had never met anyone from local government. I was talking about how infrequently we have cause to be in Dar es Salaam or interact with any national departments like the Ministry of Agricultural or Ministry of Forestry. A lot of her work was with the Ministry of Home Affairs, in Dar es Salaam. I was recounting the ghastly story of the treatment someone received after a very serious motorbike accident in the one public hospital in Kigoma (no x-rays, no pain medication, no doctors, no bed sheets). She suggested that the patient should have been taken to the Red Cross Hospital in the refugee camp – treatment is better there.
So that’s the view from Kigoma. Not on World Refugee Day.