The Secret Urban Refugees of Dar es Salaam

Earlier this year, I made my first trip to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in a search for some urban refugees. Although urban refugees are not officially recognised by the government of Tanzania, some organisations which work with the urban refugee population, such as Asylum Access, estimate that there may be over 10,000 in the city. 

Many of these refugees fled their countries of origin during the Great Lakes crises of the 1990s, with some Congolese especially arriving more recently having fled renewed violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). 

The life of an urban refugee in Dar es Salaam is not for the faint hearted. Invisible amongst the thousands of Tanzanians living in the informal settlements across the city, the daily struggle to survive requires a herculean effort. Meeting basic needs in what is often a hostile environment is incredibly difficult. 

Many of the refugees I spoke with were just concerned about existing; the coping mechanisms they have had to employ to get by are shocking. A large proportion live on one meal a day, have resorted to drinking salt water, and most of their children do not attend school. They live in shacks often without electricity, and which regularly flood during Dar es Salaam’s notorious rainy season. Malaria amongst the population is rife. 

So too is discrimination. The majority of the refugees I spoke with did not have permission to reside in Dar es Salaam – some had fled camps run by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in northwestern Tanzania without the required permit; many more have come directly to the city from their country of origin and had no documentation whatsoever. 

I listened to numerous stories of repeated arrests by the police, often for the purposes of bribery. Refugees were generally detained for several days and then released as soon as payment had been made. In more serious instances, two of those I interviewed had been accused of rape by disgruntled landlords and one is still awaiting trial; the other has since been acquitted of all charges. 

This constant fear of detection and detention leads to much of the population living incognito; sometimes pretending they are Tanzanians to avoid trouble, and being very cautious of who they allow into their social circles. One family had even changed religion in order to fit in with their neighbours, and on changing back after some time, had been promptly evicted from their home.

These daily struggles are compounded by the horrors that caused many of the refugees to flee in the first instance. Many refugees had lost close family members in the conflicts in their home countries, and many had also lost contact with those that were still alive, particularly their children. The heartbreak of not knowing whether your child is alive or dead, or their whereabouts, is a terrible burden for any parent to bear. 

In spite of their best efforts, most of the refugees had been unable to regain contact with their offspring even with the help of specialist organisations over the years. The psychological toll of having witnessed such violence compounded with the loss of their loved ones is devastating.

So what is to become of these people? Many stared vacantly as I asked if they intended to return home at some point; none did. Fear for their safety was the main reason for staying in Dar es Salaam. It appears that in spite of the government’s lack of acknowledgement, these urban refugees are not going anywhere. For now, they eke out an existence, as statue carvers, street vendors, rubbish collectors. 

But it is not a life. Their predicament offers little hope of escape from the grinding poverty of the slums, the fulfilment of their dreams, or indeed that of their children. The choice of whether to eat or go to school is a moot one, and unfortunately one that all too many of these refugees have to make. And so condemn another generation to more of the same.

Although there have been some rumblings of an urban refugee policy being drafted by the Tanzanian government, for the moment the official policy remains that all refugees in Tanzania must reside in camps, barring an official permit. 

It seems unlikely that this will change in the next couple of years. Recent problems with the urban Somali population in Nairobi may also be contributing to the government’s reluctance to address the issue. For the moment it seems, ignorance is bliss. And so the secret slum dwellers remain a secret, for now.

Aisling O’Loghlen is a Visiting Fellow at the Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford, and a Ph.D student at Heriot-Watt University.