By James Butty, Washington, D.C.
On this World Refugee Day, Tanzania, which is host to tens of thousands of refugees from Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo, said it will shut down its camps for Burundian refugees by the end of this year. Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete, who is on a three-day visit to Burundi, said Tuesday that there was no need for the refugees to continue to stay his country.
Since 2002, Tanzania has repatriated about 354 thousand Burundian refugees. The New York-based Human Rights Watch had called on Tanzania to stop what Human Rights Watch calls "forcible" expulsion.
Joseph Mungai is Tanzania's minister for home affairs and refugees. From Dar es Salaam, he told VOA the repatriation of Burundian refugees is voluntary.
"Most of these refugees who are still in Tanzania are from Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. So we are now promoting and encouraging them to return home because the situations of war, murder and tribalism from which they ran away from their countries are no longer there. Both countries, Burundi and Democratic Republic of the Congo have elected governments. In the case of Burundi, this is the first time there is an elected government for nearly two years, which has never happened since independence," he said.
Mungai denied claims by Human Rights Watch that Tanzania has engaged in "forcible" repatriation. He said Tanzania does not repatriate refugees by force.
"Tanzania is a very responsible government, respecting its international commitments and international conventions. I think Human Rights Watch was confusing between illegal immigrants and refugees. And as you know, there are other countries, even in the northern hemisphere; there is a country which is even building a wall between itself and its neighbors. So the question of refugee is an international concern and international obligation. And we as an African nation, also our culture and tradition, when your neighbor is in trouble you have to welcome him; if the hut of your neighbor is on fire and it gets destroyed, you have to welcome him to your home," Mungai said.
He makes a distinction between illegal immigrants and refugees and again denied that Tanzania was forcibly repatriating refugees.
"If you are an illegal immigrant, it means you don't have a problem in your home country. An illegal immigrant is not someone who has run away from his home because of security. A refugee is something who has to run away from his home because of insecurity. So these are two different categories," he said.
Mungai said Tanzania has been shouldering a heavy burden by sheltering tens of thousands of refugees from Burundi and Democratic Republic of Cong.
"Tanzania carries very, very big burden, deploying a lot of land area and a lot of resources. But now as I am telling you, there is a point where we had nearly two million refugees. We now have less than half a million refugees. So we are beginning to see light at the end of the tunnel. But we shall soon deal with this problem, this shame of having refugee camps and settlements. It is an African shame because the founding fathers of our nations fought for independence so that our people can sit down under democratic governments and achieve socio-economic development," he said.
Mungai said he was happy that African leaders, including President Kikwete of Tanzania, were nowadays working hard to create peace and stability on the continent.