Dar es Salaam. Faced with increasingly tough conditions to enter Europe, numerous people fleeing unrest in Middle East countries have sought asylum in Tanzania, The Citizen has learnt.
The National Project Officer with the International Organisation for Migration (IMO), Mr Charles Mkude, confirmed that the past two years have seen a surge in the number of people from Syria, Yemen and other Middle East countries arriving in Tanzania for safe haven.
“The asylum seekers have been arriving during the past two years. The number isn’t that alarming, but of course, even if you have two, three or five arriving, you raise eyebrows, because countries like Yemen and Syria are very far from Tanzania,” Mr Mkude says.
Last month the total number of Syrians who sought asylum in Tanzania was 15, but the current number could be higher as the global refugee crisis worsens.
The majority of the asylum seekers prefer Zanzibar to the Mainland, according to Mr Mkude. The main route to Zanzibar is across the Indian Ocean by boat from Mombasa or from other coastal points, while others come through the international airport.
Religious considerations could explain why a majority of the asylum seekers choose Zanzibar, since they flee from mainly Muslim countries, Mr Mkude explains.
Deputy Home Affairs minister Hamad Masauni said the government was aware of the arrival of asylum seekers.
He said although most of those seeking asylum have their origins in Tanzania, the government wasn’t taking the development for granted.
“If any of these people face difficulties in the countries they reside, where do you think their first option for safe haven be?” he posed.
Mr Masauni said the government is a signatory to international agreements to recognise and accept asylum seekers.
Asked whether the influx may pose threat to Tanzania, Mr Masauni said the government never takes for granted any foreigner entering the country lest they jeopardise national peace and security.
Mr Masauni said the world was facing great challenges of terrorism, money laundering, human trafficking and arms trade, and Tanzania was taking precaution by collecting relevant information and records before letting in any foreigner.
He couldn’t give the exact number of asylum seekers registered so far but hinted the number was growing.
East African countries aren’t traditional destinations for people fleeing unrest in the Middle Eastern countries, but the tightening of border controls in Europe may have forced people to seek new destinations. Mr Mkude thinks there can be several different reasons people apply for asylum in Tanzania.
“You have to ask yourself: ‘Why are they coming? Are they coming here to seek safety or are they already in Tanzania?’ I think some of them are already in Tanzania, others might have used Tanzania as a transit point, and others might have relations in Tanzania,” Mr Mkude says.
A 20-year-old asylum seeker from Yemen who arrived by plane two years ago, explains to The Citizen that he came to Tanzania because of Yemen’s poor education, a looming political crisis and the discrimination he faced as a Shia Muslim in a predominantly Sunni area. He chose to come to Dar since his grandfather stays here.
“I don’t want to go back to Yemen. They aren’t going to do anything good. Even if the war ends, nothing will improve there,” he says.
During his first five months here he was studying, but when the conflict in Yemen escalated his mother and brother followed him to Tanzania and they all applied for refugee status. They all stay in his grandfather’s flat as they wait for the result of their request for refugee status. While they wait, they aren’t allowed to study or to work, and the 20-year-old explains that he desires to go to school again.
“When I see local youth in their uniforms going to school, my heart burns,” he says, adding that he wouldn’t mind studying in Tanzania, but he dreams of resettlement in countries like Russia or the US.
“This is not the place for me, but only time will tell where I will be next,” he says.
Tanzania has hosted refugees from Burundi and DRC for many years; however, the arrival of Middle Eastern refuge seekers is new. Mr Mkude explains that under the current policy, all accepted refugees have to stay in the camps in Kigoma Region.
But it would be illogical to place the new kind of refugees with Burundians and Congolese who have different cultural backgrounds. Currently there are no Middle East refugees in the Kigoma camps, and Mr Mkude doubts that there would be any. “Perhaps the government could relax the encampment policy a bit and say: ‘If you have to stay, then stay in the urban settings instead, and we can still recognise you as refugees,” he says.