by Lisa D’Annunzio
Asylum Access VLA Lisa D’Annunzio shares her initial reactions to the challenges and joys of advocating for refugee rights in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
Dar es Salaam is a bustling, vibrant, loud, busy city. After my first week here— sunburned, covered in mosquito bites, lost in translation, and having my life flash before my eyes each time I rode in a bajaji or attempted to cross the street—I questioned whether or not I would be able to survive the next six months. On more than one occasion I considered heading to the airport and boarding the next flight home. Now, six weeks later, I cannot believe I ever thought about returning home early. Even leaving in five months seems far too soon.
My first few refugee clients are what brought me back to reality. Unable to legally work, travel, or freely access health care and educational opportunities, most refugees and asylum seekers in Tanzania still display a resilience and spirit that inspire. While I may have been uncomfortable in my new environment, I at least have access to adequate food, shelter, and security. I also enjoy the option of returning home, when needed. But most of our refugee clients have none of these options. For them, returning home frequently means facing persecution, torture, and possible death. Remaining in Tanzania, on the other hand, guarantees the deprivation of certain rights.
Tanzania is no longer the preeminent country of asylum that it used to be. Due to the endless flow of refugees from various war-torn countries in the region over the last 50 years, the Tanzanian government and people are feeling overstretched. Exasperation toward refugees is manifested in countless legal obstacles, xenophobia, and outright discrimination. Under Tanzania’s 1998 Refugees Act, refugees and asylum seekers are not allowed to live or work outside of the refugee camps unless they have a special permit, which are extremely difficult to obtain in practice. Meanwhile, conditions in the camps are so harsh, that many thousands choose to leave because of health and safety concerns, or simply to search for a better life for themselves and their families. In leaving the camps without a valid permit, refugees and asylum seekers cast their lot with common “illegal immigrants” and “economic migrants.” Standing in violation of the law, they are vulnerable to arrest, detention and even refoulement.
Those lucky enough to evade arrest while living outside of the refugee camps are still subject to commonplace anti-immigrant prejudice and xenophobia. Refugees are openly maligned by citizens and high-level politicians alike as a burden and source of instability. This prejudice leads to discrimination and exploitation in the workplace, at home, and at school. Many refugee clients complain of police harassment, bribes, and social ostracization. In some cases, particularly vulnerable refugees are physically and sexually assaulted, trafficked or subject to other forms of abuse due to their lack of legal status.
Asylum Access Tanzania VLA’s are working hard to protect the rights of refugees who are currently living in Dar, whether legally or illegally. In doing so, we believe that refugees themselves are capable of providing durable solutions for their situation.
Results take time, however, and this is not always something that our refugee and asylum seeking clients can afford. One client, for example, has been living at a bus station in Dar es Salaam for over three months now while simply awaiting the opportunity to have his asylum petition heard. Unable to legally work and unable, even, to report to a refugee camp where his physical and protection needs might be met, he is forced to remain homeless until his case is resolved. I worry about his safety and well being every day.
This type of legal advocacy is challenging, emotionally exhausting, and often disheartening. But now, looking forward to the next five months, I am confident that I would not want to be doing anything else. I am grateful for the opportunity to be in Dar es Salaam advocating for refugee rights, and I hope to make a difference worthy of the resilient and inspirational clients that I am fortunate to work alongside.
The postings on this site express the personal opinions of VLAs and guest bloggers. They do not necessarily represent Asylum Access’ positions, strategies, or opinions.
To learn more about the work of Asylum Access, visit the Asylum Access webpage.