Dar es Salaam, Tanzania


The City as a Safe Haven?



Since this report’s publication in April 2018, RIT has been working on deepening findings with co-author Nondo Bwami Nobel to better understand how young refugees in camps imagine and decide whether to move to Tanzania’s cities.


Since independence in 1961, the population of Tanzania has grown steadily, with the latest census figures for the country showing a population of 53.47 million in 2015 (UNDP, 2018). Unfortunately, figures are not available to show how much of this population change is a result of refugees, as no nationwide survey has been conducted to date on the refugee population. Dar es Salaam is the largest city in Tanzania, with an annual growth rate of 5.6%, although it is no longer the official capital. Plans to move the capital to Dodoma were developed in 1973 and have recently been completed (Mosha, 2004). However, Dar es Salaam remains the economic powerhouse, political hub, and de facto capital of the country.

Dar es Salaam is located on the east coast of Tanzania, but as the country borders eight other states, some of which are experiencing conflict (Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)), the city acts as a safe haven for refugees facing serious safety concerns in the refugee camps of Tanzania. It is a draw for many refugees seeking to improve their economic situation. In Dar es Salaam, refugees can get assistance, such as medical attention, that is unavailable in the camps of Nyaragusu, Mtendeli, and others in the Kigoma Region of western Tanzania (see Maps above). This case study examines some of the findings from Ph.D. research conducted with urban refugees in Dar es Salaam between 2014 and 2015, and research conducted by Asylum Access Tanzania (AATZ). Since the completion of fieldwork, the researchers have been able to continue monitoring developments in Tanzania through co-author Nondo Nobel Bwami’s direct access to urban refugees in Dar es Salaam granted by his work as Development and Community Empowerment Coordinator at AATZ.


Dar es Salaam is both a host and a transit city in the Southern Africa route. Click the map to learn more about the route, and to read other RIT reports from cities and towns linked together by these movements of people.

Dar es Salaam is both a host and a transit city in the Southern Africa route. Click the map to learn more about the route, and to read other RIT reports from cities and towns linked together by these movements of people.

Continue to the appendices for more information on the methods used for this report, and for background on refugees in Dar es Salaam and Tanzania.

The Urban IMpact

Urban Problems and the Impact on Refugees

There are many difficulties faced by both refugees and the host urban poor of Dar es Salaam. It is not possible to go into them in depth in this publication, and so a limited number of the main problems will be discussed here. Rapid urbanization is exacerbating many of the problems that Dar es Salaam faces. The city had an annual growth rate of 5.6% between the 2002 and 2012 census, almost double the rate of growth for the rest of the country, and the African Development Bank Group predicts that between 2010 and 2025, Dar es Salaam will expand by 85% (ADBG, 2014)—an astonishing figure. By 2025, it will have a population of approximately 10 million and be considered a megacity (NBS, 2013). With the urban and land use planning system already stretched to capacity, this phenomenal growth rate will undoubtedly have a significant impact on all city residents in terms of accessing adequate housing, transport, water, sanitation, and other services. The effects are already easily seen across the city, where the majority still live in informal settlements, housing is very poor, and the dala dala (minibus share taxi) transport system is woefully inadequate for the size of population it is serving.

Flooding and the effects of climate change are also a serious and growing concern for Dar es Salaam. Flooding affects the city for several reasons: increased rainfall due to climate change; rising sea levels; and lack of planning enforcement resulting in people living in low-lying areas marked as hazardous that are often flood basins or plains (Kabisch et. al, 2015). Severe flooding in the past years has led to deaths in the city, with the 2011 flood claiming 23 lives (Mutanga and Mwiruki, 2013), making this an issue that needs to be addressed urgently. Indeed, 8% of the city lies at elevation levels below 10 m, areas currently inhabited by 143,000 people. This trend is predicted to worsen as a result of climate change. Even without climate–induced sea level rise, more than 180,000 inhabitants are predicted to be exposed to flooding by 2070, at a cost of USD 8.4 billion (Kebede and Nicholls, 2010) (See Image).

Flooding in Dar es Salaam. Photo by O’Loghlen, 2017.

Stein and Moser (2014) note that assessments for climate vulnerability usually focus solely on “physical and institutional vulnerability at the local government level” and so tend to ignore the vulnerability at the household/micro level. This is particularly unfortunate as it is the urban poor, faced with rapid urbanization, who are being forced to live nearer the coast or low-lying areas, which is leading to an ever-increasing number of deaths as a result of severe weather occurrences (Moser and Stein, 2011). This is the case in Dar es Salaam, where the lack of drainage infrastructure coupled with building on inappropriate land in informal settlements is greatly increasing the asset vulnerability of the urban poor.

And that is the way as well that causes the informal settlements, because they couldn’t give the priority to the infrastructure like road or lanes for streams or things like that. So during the rain, that is why the floods come because you give me a piece of land, I construct it this way, and another one can construct it this way, and it blocks the water and things like that.
— Anonymous key informant.

Housing is another issue that is difficult for refugees to contend with, and refugees are more susceptible to cases of displacement or eviction than their Tanzanian counterparts (O’Loghlen and McWilliams, 2017). This is due to several factors: first, all refugees interviewed were renting accommodation, which leaves them at the mercy of landlords. Because of their status, they were also victims of regular rent increases and discrimination. They must live in areas with poor environmental conditions, as shown in the image below.

Common complaints included flooding and odor pollution from being located close to dumping sites. Some refugees reported experiencing discrimination, which resulted in the tenants either being forced to leave the premises or choosing to leave after experiencing negative interactions with landlords or neighbors. While tenants and landlords are relocated to safe areas due to flood and even compensated for their domiciles being taken away, undocumented urban refugees do not benefit from such services for fear of arrest and deportation because these kinds of services require a formal process of identification.

In addition, some refugees were forced to move because they could no longer afford to pay the rent. The negative consequences of having to move houses regularly included loss of sense of security as they had to build relationships with neighbors again, loss of employment if refugees worked close to their home, and a reduction in refugees’ social network if they moved to settlements far from the original housing that made it difficult to keep in contact with friends.

Accessing adequate sanitation in the city is also problematic, with 50% of the refugee respondents sharing toilets with 5 or more other families, which could be in excess of 24 people as the average household in Tanzania is currently 4.8 persons (UNFPA, 2015). The figures for Tanzanians sharing toilets are consistent with the findings of the Household Budget Survey for Dar es Salaam (NBS, 2014). This has implications for the spread of infection diseases, and several respondents indicated that they had contracted urinary tract infections from dirty toilet facilities that were used by a large number of people.

Poor housing conditions. Photo by O’Loghlen, 2017.

Governance and Regulations Imposed on Refugees

Residency permits

Tanzania operates a restrictive camp policy for the vast majority of refugees who seek sanctuary within its borders. No policy currently exists for refugees to reside in urban areas, and the only way they are legally allowed to do so is if they “receive permission from the Camp Commander and Regional Commander to exit the camps and apply for temporary residence for reasons such as health [or] academic studies” (IRC, 2017). As a result, the majority of refugees who live in Dar es Salaam are there without camp permit permission and so are at risk of being returned to the camps in western Tanzania or being deported if caught. In order to assist refugees who were regularly harassed due to their lack of documentation, AATZ began helping some to apply for a peasant permit to regularize their status. These permits were originally intended to be used by migrant farmers who crossed over the Congolese and Burundian borders with Tanzania during harvest time. These farmers only stayed for short periods to work in local Tanzanian villages. See Image below.

With the help of the AATZ’s legal aid team, many of the Congolese refugees in Dar es Salaam had their applications for peasant permits accepted up until 2012. These peasant permits allowed the holders to stay in Dar es Salaam for two years at a time, after which the permits came up for renewal. However, in 2014 the Tanzanian Department of Immigration began withdrawing the permits from holders without any explanation and without replacing them with another permit. This left the Congolese urban refugees in a state of limbo, as the peasant permit documentation had prevented them from being harassed by the police. Since 2014, no new peasant permits have been issued to any Congolese citizens.

The only other option available for refugees is obtaining a “Class A” residence permit for business people. Because the fees for such a permit are between USD 1,000–3,000 (AATZ, 2015), it is impossible for most refugees to purchase one.

Congolese refugees emphasized repeatedly how important the peasant permits had been in making their day-to-day lives easier. Released from the constant fear of arrest or deportation, they were allowed some stability to begin to rebuild their lives. For non-Congolese refugees, living in Dar es Salaam was difficult from the very beginning due to their status. Asylum seekers awaited their refugee status determination (RSD) meetings and stayed in the city, while some had already had their RSDs rejected and so had not secured refugee status, but had chosen to stay on in Dar es Salaam in any case.


Fifty percent of refugees interviewed stated that they had had to pay a bribe of some type since arriving in Dar es Salaam, whether to police officials or neighbors who had threatened to report them to immigration authorities. The findings for incarceration (Figure below) in this research were in keeping with the immigration detention prison survey report conducted by AATZ (AATZ, 2013). This 2013 AATZ Prison Survey Report conducted a comprehensive examination of prisons throughout Tanzania and found 18 asylum seekers or refugees (as defined under the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees of the 1969 Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa).

Number of times refugees arrested. O’Loghlen, 2017.

Number of times refugees arrested. O’Loghlen, 2017.

Cash deposit slip for Peasant Permit Application. Photo from Realizing Rights, 2014.

Of these, 11 were Congolese, 4 Burundian, and 3 Ethiopian. Sixteen of the eighteen had been charged with illegal entry. The main conclusions of this report suggested that forced migration detention was a country-wide problem and considered the high number of forced migrants charged with illegal entry significant (AATZ, 2013). Per Article 31 of the 1951 Refugee Convention, refugees “should not be arbitrarily detained or penalized for illegal entry—even without proper documentation—in light of their unique situation as forced migrants” (AATZ, 2013, p. 22). It is also salient that one of the incarcerated forced migrants was awaiting deportation, in spite of the principle of non- refoulement being enshrined in Article 33 of the 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol (AATZ, 2013). This research did not encounter any refugees or asylum seekers who had previously been deported. However, all of those questioned were very fearful of deportation occurring during the course of one of their arrests. This fear of capture seriously limited their right to the city; physically, in terms of the places they chose to frequent and mentally, in that they were never allowed to feel safe. The current sentence for illegal entry is a fine of TZS 100,000 or potentially imprisonment for up to three years (AATZ, 2013). None of the refugees interviewed had received the maximum sentence of three years, but the fine of TZS 100,000 placed some under significant financial strain.


Lack of coordination among public institutions

The stakeholder analysis for basic services such as water, sanitation, housing, electricity, and education in Dar es Salaam is complex and involves a plethora of actors. In reaction to the urgent need to provide housing and land, over the past number of years the government of Tanzania has adopted a process of formalization as advocated by Hernando de Soto, with the intention that formalizing properties would allow capital to be unlocked in the form of loans. This has proved to be wishful thinking, and the result in Dar es Salaam has been the expansion of informal actors in the urban space (Jenkins et. al, 2007).

When discussing this informality, Jenkins et al. note that “to ‘clean up’ this situation through planning, land rights acquisition, titling and establishing or working regulatory land use controls is in most contexts impossible, even with modern technology such as GPS and GIS.”

The most prominent failure of the various institutions related to the provision of housing and land services in Dar es Salaam appears to be the inability to adequately plan for and safeguard the city from exponential urban sprawl and continuing proliferation of informal settlements.

The responsibility lies mainly with the Ministry for Lands, Housing and Human Settlement Development (MLHHSD), which recognizes that the city is growing rapidly but is often failing to prevent the encroachment of the expanding population onto greenfield sites. This lack of ability of organizations to work together and provide adequate services does not just extend to land and housing issues but is a systemic problem in the city, as indicated by an officer in the National Housing Corporation (NHC):

They have their…Ministries, they have their coordination units. But the danger is, with the theoretical and practical. How can you meet in the meeting as a coordination unit, without enforceable coordination mandate? Because we meet, we agree. I go back I tell my team, but when my team is working, it’s working as my team. Your team is working as your team. Who is enforcing? Who is enforcing the coordination? The practical things—people are told to coordinate. Internally they have coordination units, but who is enforcing the other persons? Who tells the other person, stop! This has to start before you do what you are doing. Who has the mandate to tell them that? I don’t see us being able to tell

DAWASCO (Dar es Salaam Water and Sewage Corporation) stop, because where you are going, I am coming to lay a road. Or, when you are laying a pipe, the other guy comes along and says we are planning to start our work next month, wait for me or provide provision for me. They may tell them, and when you go in the office they are doing it. It’s not that it’s not happening. They will show you the file, the reference letter, and we wrote to them. Yeah we saw them laying the pipe, I told them I had my plan, but who is going to sit down and say, you were told yesterday, you didn’t follow.”

- An officer in the National Housing Corporation (NHC)

Isaac’s Success Story with the Peasant Permit

Before he obtained his peasant permit, Isaac* had nothing to prove he had legal status in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Afraid to travel around the city for fear of arrest or detention, it was difficult to secure a job, let alone begin to rebuild his life after fleeing the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

“After I received news about the issuing of peasant permits and that Asylum Access Tanzania (AATZ) was helping people with half [the] fee, I was very much thrilled and applied for the permit.”

When Isaac found out about the peasant permit, he approached AATZ for help in preparing the paperwork to acquire the document. After obtaining the permit, he found a job working as a cleaner. Formerly a truck driver, Isaac aspired to accomplish more and with a few of his fellow workers, he began to participate in a lending group, or mchezo, in Swahili. Every month, each member would contribute TZS 90,000 (roughly $53) and one person would receive TZS 600,000 ($352).

When it was Isaac’s turn, he took the money and invested in a mobile phone business, buying a few phones and selling them on credit around Dar es Salaam. As his capital increased, he was able to start selling in other locations.

Today, Isaac has expanded his mobile phone business and owns three M-pesa (mobile money transfer) shops as well as motorcycle taxi. With his peasant permit, Isaac was able to obtain a business license, open bank accounts to manage his earnings, and get his driver’s license.

(Asylum Access Tanzania, 2014)

*Name has been changed for protection.

Integration with the Host community

Over half of the interviewed refugees fleeing to Dar es Salaam did not know anyone on arrival in the city. Wanting to remain inconspicuous, some chose to purposely not expand their networks too widely, in case of trouble with the authorities. One of the refugees described how they tried to reduce contact to avoid detection:

So I’m really fearful of totally integrating with them or getting used to them because if I start with my Swahili, I don’t have good Swahili, they would identify who I am. So what I normally do, my friends come from the church in [Location X], and my ethnicity.

This quote highlights that in this instance the refugee did not feel comfortable with Tanzanians and believed it necessary to hide their nationality. The fact that refugees do not interact with Tanzanians makes them more vulnerable, as their social networks are much smaller. It also leaves them open to attempts at extortion if Tanzanians do find out their true identities. When discussing the topic of refugees with the Tanzanians, it is interesting to note that only a quarter stated categorically that refugees were not welcome in the city, which counters some of the experiences of the refugee population themselves. What this finding suggests is that there is a genuine willingness and a well of social capital on the part of a large proportion of the Tanzanian population to welcome refugees. Exploiting this capital will be crucial to the development of coherent refugee policies and programs in the future. While the sample is not large enough to extrapolate this finding to the Tanzanian population as a whole, it still provides an opportunity—with the help of well-developed programs through participation with the local communities—for refugees to possibly be integrated more fully with at least some sections of the local population.

Yeah so my boss knows I am a foreigner and before she hired me, she knew that I am a foreigner. So she is aware of that. But the problem is with my fellow teachers; sometimes I need information from the school, so they will tell everyone else about this and I will always be the last to be informed. They make sure that all these other peoples, the locals, know so that I can know the last. So things like that.

Discrimination and prejudice against urban refugees is widespread in the Global South (Pantuliano et al., 2012) and is one of the reasons that these populations go to such extremes to hide their true identities in the urban space. For example, over half of the refugees interviewed stated they had experienced discrimination at work, while a quarter stated they had no Tanzanian friends. In addition to the xenophobia that sometimes accompanies having a different appearance, language, or religion, the urban refugee cohort is also in a continuous battle for already scarce resources with their Tanzanian counterparts. Fifty percent of refugees interviewed stated that they had had to pay a bribe of some type since arriving in Dar es Salaam, whether to police officials or neighbors who had threatened to report them to immigration authorities.

They were regularly arrested and were kept incarcerated until they paid substantial bribes (usually between TZS 50,000 and TZS 150,000), often only to have the process repeated several weeks later. Several had also experienced conflict associated with their living arrangements (through fights with either neighbors or landlords). A refugee described how, when waiting in line to take her turn drawing water at a local well, she often faced discrimination and was reminded that she had no right to be there. The story also crystallizes the point highlighted previously regarding competition for scarce resources. It could be argued that perhaps her neighbors would not have been so hostile if water were easily available to everyone in the settlement:

They will tell you ‘step aside you are a refugee. We need citizens to get the water first. You are just coming here’—sometimes they can just be rude at you because you are just a refugee, so you step aside.

Refugees’ Experiences

Coping with urban pressures

Refugees struggle with economic and environmental challenges in addition to insecurity. As the majority are residing in the city without permission, they are at constant risk of police and immigration officers’ arrest, incarceration, or deportation. In addition, they have to contend with the problems of the city itself as outlined above, which is prone to severe flooding, has a high proportion of informal settlements, and has a lack of basic water, sanitation, and housing. Refugees are in competition with the Tanzanian urban poor for employment.

Accepting low wages and poor working conditions

The majority of refugees work in low-skilled, low-paying, and insecure jobs, even though a significant proportion are qualified to work in the formal sector. See Table 5 for a breakdown of refugee occupations. The most popular job for the refugees interviewed was statue carver (Image 6), while the majority of their Tanzanian counterparts worked as street vendors. Street vendors sell water, fruit, small “bites” of homemade food, phone credit, and a variety of everyday goods throughout the informal settlements.

Many refugees lamented the uncertain nature or the lack of regular earnings that made the majority feel very vulnerable to the unexpected costs that inevitably arise from time to time, such as illness, unexpected school fees, etc. It was particularly challenging for those who were overqualified and had to flee from good jobs in their country of origin. The only way around this problem is for refugees to pretend that they are Tanzanian. It can be very difficult for refugees to do so because of their name or accent, which can set them apart and can be difficult to disguise. However, one of the refugees who had been a teacher in his country of origin had succeeded in doing so. He explained that he had been lucky enough to find a supervisor who was aware of his story but was willing to overlook his nationality.

Statues carved by refugees. Photo by O’Loghlen, 2017.

The far-reaching consequences of employment restrictions on the refugee population cannot be overstated, as many of the refugees have skills that are needed in Tanzania but which they are not allowed to use. The majority of urban refugees interviewed survived on less than TZS 300,000 (USD 136.85) per month. One third of the group survived on less than TZS 60,000 (USD 27.37) and in some cases were the only breadwinner in the family.

These low income levels can be attributed to both their illegal status preventing them from taking positions in the formal sector, and in some cases to a lack of education and skills. What is most significant in the case of income level is that Tanzanian inhabitants of informal settlements are also poor by Tanzanian standards. The latest Tanzanian census conducted in 2012 states that the average monthly cash earnings for private sector workers is TZS 307,026, while for the private sector it is TZS 671,639 (NBS, 2014). Relatively speaking, those who are employed are less vulnerable to the extreme deprivation that the refugee population experiences: only one Tanzanian interviewed earned TZS 60,000 (USD 27.37) or less per month. However, urban Tanzanians without employment are in a similar situation to the refugee populations.

Refugee Occupations.

1 A Statue carver uses carpentry to produce wooden statues in traditional African dress for sale as tourist items.

Refugee Youth Integration

Displacement also directly affects refugee children, who often find it extremely difficult to register at schools. As refugees, with the exception of those who have permits, legally they are not allowed to be in Dar es Salaam in the first instance, so schools will not accept them if they are aware of their refugee status. However, another issue is the requirement to show identification documents, which either reveals the refugees’ nationality or which they often do not have as they fled their country of origin with very few possessions. Refugee families usually get around this problem by pretending to be Tanzanian. Refugee parents tell their children to use more Tanzanian-sounding names at school and try to get them to speak Swahili with a Tanzanian accent as indicated here:

Yeah, before some of them used to go through others’ names, like Tanzanian names so that they sound like Tanzanians to get a place in schools. But when we got the paperwork, some permits, they were allowed in schools, but now the problem is money.

Other accounts by refugees explained how they had gone to headmasters, cried and essentially begged for their children to be accepted until the headmasters relented. Some had paid bribes for their nationalities to be overlooked by the school authorities. For those children who had one refugee parent and one Tanzanian parent, the process was generally a lot easier, particularly if the Tanzanian parent was the father of the child. Showing his birth certificate to school authorities sorted out any difficulties in most cases. However, for those children with two refugee parents, the whole process was very challenging.

Coping mechanisms—cutting down on food

Adequate nutrition is linked to several other assets, such as the ability to provide labor and increase human capital through education. Lack of adequate nutrition is therefore a key vulnerability and one that is experienced regularly by refugees. Reducing food consumption is a primary coping mechanism that refugees adopt when their income decreases.

Continuing to adopt this strategy over the medium to long term is not only extremely dangerous but also unsustainable. Living on one often poor-quality meal per day will inevitably lead to weakness and illnesses over time. It also results in poor performance at work and school. The importance of adequate nutrition for children in particular is vital and makes these findings particularly worrying. The parents of children often cut back on their own food intake in order to ensure that their children get enough, which is potentially damaging to their health and unsustainable in the long term.

Refugees’ Future Plans. O’Loghlen, 2017.

The role of UNHCR

It is not just the lack of political capital available to the refugees that increases their difficulty but also the lack of powerful organizations championing issues on their behalf. AATZ provides free legal aid to refugees in Dar es Salaam and has been of great help as attested to by the interviewees, whereas UNHCR appears less concerned with undocumented urban refugees. As UNHCR is only mandated to assist those with official refugee status (which many urban refugees do not have), this mandate may partly explain their lack of interest. There have been some attempts to draft an urban refugee policy to submit to the MHA (as confirmed by interviews conducted with UNHCR, TCRS, and AATZ).

However, since the development of the Burundian crisis in western Tanzania in 2015, UNHCR appears to have shifted its priorities elsewhere. It is also notable that in spite of several publications on the challenges facing urban refugees in Dar es Salaam (Sommers, 2001; Willems, 2003; AATZ, 2011; Pangilinan, 2012), to date there has been no successful effort on the part of UNHCR to improve the situation of those refugees who find themselves in challenging circumstances in the city. Without the aegis of a powerful institution such as UNHCR supporting them, refugees lack the agency to make a noticeable improvement to their circumstances.

It appears that refugees are aware that UNHCR is not particularly helpful in this instance, with only 40% of participants contacting the organization. When asked the reason for not contacting UNHCR on arrival in Dar es Salaam, the most common reason given was fear of deportation. Although during the course of this research no evidence came to light of UNHCR being directly involved in the deportation of any forced migrants in Dar es Salaam, stories recounted by several of the refugees told of instances where UNHCR did not keep to the spirit of acting as a protection organization. 

Emergency assistance

One of the stakeholders interviewed recounted a case of a young woman who had been raped and became pregnant while at the NMC refugee transit center in Western Kigoma that is run by UNHCR. She became very ill and came to Dar es Salaam to seek medical treatment with the intention of getting help from the UNHCR center. By the time of her arrival, she was suffering from a serious case of malaria, a urinary tract infection, and was almost due to give birth. However, as she had not brought her identification and refugee documents with her from the NMC, UNHCR refused to help her in any way. They only directed this woman to the offices of TCRS, who then brought her to hospital where she was treated. The baby was delivered two weeks later.

However, TCRS is a relatively small humanitarian organization that depends on donations for much of its funding. As a result, the staff of TCRS ended up having to pay the medical bills of the young woman out of their own pockets, as TCRS did not have the available funds and UNHCR refused to contribute any money towards the bill. After several months of disagreement with TCRS, UNHCR finally agreed to take responsibility for the refugee. As the TCRS interviewee explained, this case is just one of many similar instances that they encounter, which have been increasing even more since the outbreak of the Burundian crisis in 2015.

This example, although an isolated incident, highlights the lack of strong advocacy at the micro level of the day-to-day running of UNHCR in Tanzania, which is supported at the macro level by the organization’s refusal to push harder for the urban refugee agenda with the government of Tanzania. The continuing delay in releasing the scoping exercise of urban refugees commissioned by UNHCR to the public four years after its publication is a case in point. When asked about the reasons for this delay, UNHCR officials explained that the organization could not antagonize the government as they could be expelled from the country if they did. However, there is a balance to be set between antagonizing the government and honoring the core mandate of your organization.

The institutional workings of UNHCR are particularly important, as without their support and a strong advocacy effort from the organization it is highly unlikely that an urban refugee policy will come to fruition in the near future. This is a negative development for the thousands of refugees already in Dar es Salaam and the many more who are likely to make their way from the now very overcrowded camps in western Tanzania in the coming years. When asked what their plans were for the future, 60% of the refugees said they intended to stay in Dar es Salaam going forward (Figure below).

The asset vulnerability of the refugee population is quite considerable in this instance. Having UNHCR as an advocate could be of great benefit to the group. It is possible that the position of UNHCR may change over time. Incumbent UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres is the former High Commissioner for UNHCR and was a strong supporter of urban refugees. Given the global attention on the refugee crisis and his considerable interest in the subject, it is feasible that the further reform and development of UNHCR will be one of Mr. Guterres’ priorities.

While the role of UNHCR is very important for the future protection of urban refugees, it is also important to note that the majority of refugees did not come to Dar es Salaam through UNHCR-run refugee camps but directly from their countries of origin (COOs) (Figure below). All refugees interviewed were displaced from their COOs because of violence, and many had suffered traumatic events such as separation from their children, killings of family members, and rape. Their reasons for not going to a refugee camp ranged from being unaware of their existence to having heard stories of the poor conditions in the camps and deciding they would have better opportunities in the cities. This was corroborated by the refugees who had been in the camps and had chosen to leave—37% of all refugees interviewed had left the refugee camps, mostly because of the poor conditions, although for several it was due to safety or medical reasons.

Refugee route to Dar es Salaam. Ologhlen, 2017.

These results again highlight the shortcomings of UNHCR, not just in urban areas but also in the camps, where refugees do not feel they are receiving an acceptable level of basic services and security to allow them to stay there. However, the lack of independence in the camps must also be considered a factor in this, as refugees are not allowed to work and are confined to the camp sites and therefore lead a pitiful existence in many instances. Even a government official at the MHA acknowledged the circumstances in the camps were not ideal and not the best place for people to live over protracted periods. The changing nature of displacement, which is pivoting towards urban areas, therefore must develop in tandem with a more robust policy landscape from organizations such as UNHCR. If the services it provides in camps are not sufficient or amenable to refugees, then a much more concerted effort must be made to provide alternative options for refugees in cities such as Dar es Salaam.


Several recommendations can be made to improve the lives of the urban refugee population based on the results of this research. They are discussed below. 

Freedom of movement

Mandatory encampment is the norm for the vast majority of refugees in Tanzania. However, many displaced people choose to live outside the camp without permission for numerous reasons: to access employment, for security, etc. Granting freedom of movement and permission to reside in cities would greatly reduce the level of insecurity they experience and reduce the threats of bribery from corrupt officials who take advantage of their undocumented status. The following steps are recommended:

•       Urgently take measures toward granting freedom of movement to asylum seekers and refugees.

•       Ensure the National Identification Authority provides uniform identity cards to all asylum seekers and refugees, ones that include the person’s immigration status and photo (AATZ, 2015).

The right to work

The right to work is of paramount importance to urban refugee populations. Generally no support exists for urban displaced populations. Without the ability to work, many refugees are left destitute and reliant on the charity of organizations such as TCRS. Under the Non-Citizens Act of 2015, the Director of Refugee Services has the authority to permit urban refugee employment, but this permission has not been exercised due to a lack of administrative regulations (IRC, 2017). The difficulty in securing legal permission to work in Tanzania through a work permit results in the vast majority of refugees working in the informal sector, even when they have the qualifications and skills to contribute to the formal sector. Specific recommendations include:

•       Improve access to business licenses and work permits for asylum seekers and refugees.

•       Exempt refugees seeking work permits from the requirement of employer sponsorship and other conditions that they are unable to satisfy because of their displacement (IRC, 2017). 

Protection from refoulement through due process

Refugee status determination (RSD) in Tanzania is conducted by the government and overseen by UNHCR officials. However, the RSD process is often lengthy and convoluted, and it does not provide adequate information to those applicants who are rejected as to the reasons for their rejection. Recommendations for improving the process include:

•       Ensure asylum seekers are given prompt access to fair and individualized RSD.

•       Ensure that all government officers involved in RSD procedures are knowledgeable in refugee matters and receive training on accurately assessing refugee claims.

•       Provide written reasons for negative RSD decisions.

•       Allow applicants the right to appeal a negative RSD decision to a different decision maker (AATZ, 2015). 

Information on service provision is essential

The mapping of existing services in urban areas is required to be able to provide urban displaced populations with information on where they can access existing services and to provide information to humanitarian organizations on gaps in existing service provision (IRC, 2017). Sharing information will require a different approach from humanitarian organizations, which are more comfortable with providing services themselves than acting as a liaison with public and private stakeholders. However, a change to this approach is required to prevent duplication of services and the waste of resources.


The urban poverty aggravated by rapid urbanization, flooding from climate change, and the influx of urban refugees suggests that challenging times lie ahead for Dar es Salaam. As the principal city in one of the few stable regions of East Africa, it offers sanctuary to many desperate people fleeing war and chaos. This report highlights that to date urban refugees in the city have been for the most part ignored, with very little support from official avenues.

The vulnerability of displaced groups has in some cases led them to adopt negative coping mechanisms such as cutting back on food to make ends meet. Their vulnerabilities have also pitted them against the host community, with whom they often compete for jobs and resources. Several steps can be taken to ease the plight of both communities.

The most important is to recognize refugees’ rights to live legally in urban areas. In addition, humanitarian organizations, UN agencies, NGOs, and local government departments must learn how to identify both the populations in question and their specific needs. A much higher level of collaboration is required on the part of these organizations. If this path of collaboration is adopted, urban refugees may have the opportunity to lead lives of their choosing, with dignity and opportunity. 

The future of integration in Dar es Salaam

The future of urban refugee integration in Dar es Salaam is difficult to predict. While the Refugees Act of 1998 and the 2003 Refugee Policy are currently under review, the fact that the Tanzanian government has recently withdrawn from the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF) and the delay in publishing a report on the urban refugee survey from 2014 suggest that it is unlikely urban refugees will be given more freedoms in the foreseeable future. Coupled with this is the wider East and Central African displacement crisis, with renewed fighting in Eastern Congo, and no conclusion to the ongoing issues in Burundi and Somalia. Hosting nations such as Tanzania and neighboring Uganda are under great pressure to provide services for large populations over protracted lengths of time with no apparent resolution. The salient question remains: What will become of all these people? We can only hope that Tanzanians continue to be the generous and gracious hosts who have saved so many lives over the course of half a century.

Lessons and good practice from other countries

Uganda is often considered among the most hospitable refugee-hosting countries in the world (World Bank, 2016). As a neighbor to Tanzania, often hosting refugees from the same countries of origin, it provides many examples of lessons and good practices that Tanzania could adopt in order to improve the lives of refugees within its borders. The Ugandan refugee policy, legislated by the 2006 Refugees Act and the 2010 Refugee Regulations, provides a series of protections and rights, some of which are not accorded to refugees in Tanzania. Ugandan refugees hold the following rights:

1.            The right to own and dispose of movable property and to lease or sub-lease movable property.

2.            The right to engage in agriculture, industry, and business; to practice one’s profession and to access formal and informal employment opportunities.

3.            The right to economic, social, and cultural benefits, including access to elementary education, protection of intellectual property rights (e.g., copyright protection for musicians and artists), and the issuance of a UN Convention travel document for the purpose of travel outside of Uganda.

4.            Entitlement to receive fair and just treatment, without discrimination.

5.            The right to seek asylum and not be subject to refoulement.

6.            Freedom of movement, subject to “reasonable restrictions’’ on the grounds of national security or public order.

7.            The right of freedom of association, although this is limited to nonpolitical associations, nonprofit associations, and trade unions.

8.            The principle of family unity.

9.            East African Community nationals as asylum seekers are entitled to all the rights and privileges normally enjoyed by other East African Community citizens as conferred by the East African Community Treaty of Cooperation and its protocols.

10.        Refugees are registered and provided identification and travel documents (World Bank, 2016).

Refugees in rural settlements are provided with land to cultivate, in addition to being able to access basic services and receive physical protection. These policies have helped to integrate the refugees into communities and allow a peaceful coexistence to develop, as the host population sees that refugees are active in society and contributing to the community. While not without its limitations and challenges (for example, land management is a cause of tension in some areas; World Bank, 2016), Uganda still offers much greater agency to refugees than do other countries to start again and rebuild their lives as they see fit, without the constant threat of harassment from authorities or fear of identification or deportation. It remains to be seen whether Tanzania will follow in its neighbor’s footsteps, but given the current level of displacement in the region, policies must be adapted if refugees in Tanzania are to have the opportunity to live dignified and fulfilling lives.


About the Authors

Aisling Ologhlen

Aisling O’Loghlen

Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

Aisling is a Research Fellow in Global Challenges at Northumbria University, Newcastle. Her research interests focus on urban displacement, and she conducted her Ph.D. on the vulnerability of urban refugee populations in Dar Es-Salaam where she lived for several months working closely with two local organizations in the city, Asylum Access Tanzania and the Centre for Community Initiatives.

Email: aisling.ologhlen@northumbria.ac.uk
Nondo Nobel Bwami.png

Nondo Nobel Bwami

Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

Nondo is a Development and Community Empowerment Coordinator at Asylum Access Tanzania. He is an economic empowerment and refugee rights program professional with significant leadership and program management experience and holder of an MS.c. in Human Resource Management. Nondo is passionate about human rights, peace, development and poverty reduction. He has experience in refugee rights, community economic empowerment, livelihoods and self-reliance programming, community legal empowerment, advocacy, fundraising, and donor relations. He is interested in influencing public policies for community empowerment and social welfare.

Email: nondo.nobel@gmail.com


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The three areas of the city chosen for this research are situated in the low-income areas of Dar es Salaam with a high proportion of informal settlements. The locations of these settlements will not be disclosed in order to protect the refugee populations residing in them. Urban refugees are only permitted to reside in Dar es Salaam when they have received a camp permit, which is difficult to obtain. So the majority of participants interviewed for this research did not want their locations in Dar es Salaam disclosed for fear of reprisals from the government. The fieldwork was conducted between March 2014 and June 2015. A research permit was granted prior to beginning the fieldwork by COSTECH, the Tanzania Commission for Science and Technology. The three settlements were chosen after lengthy discussions with refugee and urban settlement organizations working in Dar es Salaam (AATZ, Centre for Community Initiatives (CCI), and Ezra Ministries of Tanzania). They were chosen on the basis of the following:

•       The settlements were known to have a sizeable refugee population based on previous research work conducted by AATZ and Ezra Ministries of Tanzania.

•       They were accessible during times of flooding, which pose a significant problem during

the rainy season. Large areas of informal settlements can become almost unreachable during the rainy season due to poor drainage and infrastructure.

•       They had significant numbers of potential participants from partner organizations living in the area.

•       The cooperation of the local mtaa (sub-ward) office was available for entering the settlement area (this was confirmed through the research assistants who made contact with different ward officers).

Data collection methods used in this research were a comprehensive literature review, interviews, focus groups, and triangulation of data. A summary of these methods and their contributions in terms of the type of data collected and their purpose is in the table below.

The data collection consisted of 90 semi- structured interviews: 30 interviews with refugees, 30 with Tanzanian urban poor, and 30 with UNHCR, UN-HABITAT, NGOs, INGOs, local government, and academic staff (see Table 3). Two focus groups were conducted, one with refugees and one with the Tanzanian urban poor. Interviews were conducted in English, Kiswahili, French, Kibembe, and Lingala.

A week was spent conducting the pilot study and making changes to the interview questions after discussing the issues that arose during the testing phase with the research assistants. The conducting of semi-structured interviews then began with the assistance of AATZ and CCI. All interviewees were asked if they were comfortable with the interviews being recorded. If the interviewee chose not to be recorded, extensive notes of the interview were taken. All participants were assured of confidentiality at the beginning of interviews and informed that they had the right not to answer any questions they did not wish to answer and to withdraw from the interview at any time. In addition, all interviewees who participated in the semi-structured interviews and focus groups were informed of the author’s position as a Ph.D. researcher and of the purpose of the interviews.

Methods used for data collection.

Breakdown of refugee demographics.

Breakdown of refugee demographics.

Thus, a printed handout in their native language outlining the research purpose and objectives was provided  to every participant prior to each encounter. This handout was read aloud to the participants before the start of the interview to ensure they understood the nature of the research. The recordings of interviews and notes taken were stored on a password-protected external hard drive, which no one apart from the authors was permitted to access.

Interviews conducted with other stakeholders.

Methodological challenges

The location of the interviews created some difficulties in terms of drawing unwanted attention to both the interviewees and the researchers. As the interviewees lived in slum areas of the city, entry into the areas of a Western female was inevitably noticed by the residents of the settlement. This created potential danger for the interviewees and the interviewer, and the inevitable colonialist insinuations made by being a white foreigner in sub-Saharan Africa ensued.

The ubiquitous call of mzungu (white person / person of European descent) ensured that there was little chance of us as a pair traversing the slums unnoticed. My [Aisling’s] appearance in turn led to unrealistic financial expectations from both the interviewee participants and the wider slum communities about the remuneration they would receive for the interviews and the difference to their lives this research would make. As noted by Jacobsen and Landau (2003), “the presence of Westerners is always associated with resources of some sort” (p. 10). In an attempt to minimize these issues, it was clarified at the beginning of each session that the researchers were students and that it was unlikely that the research would have an immediate impact on the community’s situation.

It was explained to participants that the research would attempt to raise awareness of the issues of their communities through dissemination of the research findings and ongoing contact with the NGOs involved with them, but that this could not be guaranteed. Participants were compensated for their time in the form of U.S. dollar (USD) 15/Tanzanian shilling (TZS) 25,000 (exchange rate as of October 2014) for each session. Although debates exist on the provision of monetary compensation for interviewees (Head, 2009), the researchers decided monetary compensation was necessary in this instance for two reasons: 1) the level of risk taken by the refugee group in speaking to an outsider warranted some kind of benefit to them; and 2) the interviews and focus groups could take up to several hours, which cut into both groups’ income-generating time.

Issues of fixing a time schedule for the interviews was problematic for several reasons: first, heavy rain occurred frequently during the field trips, which caused traffic chaos. Dar es Salaam has a serious flooding problem, and heavy rains often cause traffic to come to a virtual standstill for hours on end. As the case study settlements were in two instances far from the researchers’ base, flooding often caused major delays in the original timetable and resulted in interviews having to be rescheduled. In the case of interviews with professional staff, in a small number of cases interviewees were very late or failed to show up for the original interview time. So, these interviews also had to be rescheduled, which added time to the original allotted weeks for the data collection phase.


The social relations of working with people who are disadvantaged or where there is the discussion of sensitive topics is fraught with difficulty for social researchers. Johnson and Clarke (2003) identified some of the difficulties as lack of training, role conflict, feelings of isolation, desire for reciprocity, and the cost to the participants. All of these issues to different extents were experienced by the authors during fieldwork. The desire for reciprocity is common among social researchers working in these types of fields and is beginning to be discussed more openly in the wider sphere of social research, as indicated by the special issue on the topic published in 2014 by the Journal of Research Practice (Gupta and Kelly, 2014). The examples given in the issue highlight that researchers are painfully aware of the cost of their research activities and questioning for the participants and feel a strong urge to “reciprocate their generosity” (Gupta and Kelly, 2014, p. 2).

This cost comes in the form of time, invasion of privacy, and often serious discomfort if the inquiry delves into painful or sensitive topics for the participant. Indeed, the authors at several times during the course of the fieldwork questioned the potentially exploitative nature of the researcher/participant relationship and were aware that the foundations of a research career are built “on the shoulders of these people who help provide data” (Gupta and Kelly, 2014, p. 2), often at a personal cost to those people. At the end of the Ph.D. process, the researcher receives something for this endeavor, but it is much less clear how beneficial this process is to the interview participants. From this comes feelings of guilt and frustration that the researcher bears some responsibility to help improve the situation for the communities they work with, by engaging in emancipatory research. 

Research limitations

The main limitations of this research are the fact that it is not statistically significant and that the locations of the refugees have not been identified. While a larger-scale quantitative survey would have been very useful to get an overview of key trends in the population as a whole, budgetary and time constraints prevented this type of survey from being undertaken. There is always a trade-off between gaining rich, deeply insightful data through individual interviews and a broader picture through quantitative surveying. In this instance, the research has provided a solid basis for further study on urban refugees to be conducted in the future. As discussed above, it was not possible due to security concerns to disclose the locations where the refugees live in Dar es Salaam. Numerous interview participants recounted tales of having to pay bribes to neighbors or police when their identity as a refugee was revealed, and interviews were only conducted on the basis that confidentiality would be protected at all times. So while it is in some ways limiting not be able to publish the location data, the ethical considerations in this instance outweigh any assumed benefit of highlighting the plight of the urban refugee population.

Appendix B: Refugees in Tanzania

Dar es Salaam is a rapidly growing city, with 50.7% of the urban population of Tanzania residing in slums (UN-HABITAT, 2016). As can be seen from the graph below, only 4.1% of the population of Dar es Salaam was considered to be below the basic needs poverty line in 2012, however given the population of the city, as well as the number of people who may not have been included in the census (it is likely that the true figure is considerably higher).

Percentage of population below the basic needs poverty line by area. Data from NBS 2014.

In comparison to Tanzania as a whole, the level of poverty in Dar es Salaam is lower, suggesting that this is one of the main pull factors for migration en masse to the city. However, providing services and employment for such a large population is difficult, with Dar es Salaam having an employment to population ratio of only 57.9% in 2011/12 period (NBS, 2014, p. 66), much lower than other areas of Tanzania.

Tanzanian refugee policy (see Table) has changed dramatically since the creation of the Republic under Julius Nyerere. From the 1960s until the early 2000s, Tanzania had become known as one of the most hospitable countries for accepting refugees in the world, hosting more refugees than any other African country in 2000, at a total of nearly 600,000 (Chaulia, 2003). The vast majority of these refugees came from the neighboring countries of Burundi, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

History of refugee policy in Tanzania.

Several major influxes from these three countries can be identified: the 1972 group of Burundian refugees, mostly Hutus who fled a campaign of violence by a Tutsi-dominated government. The Rwandan influx occurred during and after the Rwandan genocide of 1994 with the mass slaughter of Tutsi by a Hutu majority government. While Rwanda is now relatively peaceful, the DRC continues to experience ongoing instability and violent outbreaks between the government and various militia groups vying for power (IRIN, 2018). The latest mass influx to Tanzania however, came from Burundi in 2015 due to the contentious reelection of President Nkurunziza for a third term. According to the latest UNHCR statistics, there is a current population of concern of approximately 743,000 people residing in Tanzania (UNHCR, 2018).

However, the Government of Tanzania informed UNHCR in January 2018 that it has withdrawn the implementation of the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF) (Reliefweb, 2018), stopping the ongoing exercise to provide Tanzanian citizenship to some Burundian refugees. Tanzania traditionally had a solid reputation for welcoming refugees and was a CRRF pilot country. This decision may impact the asylum seekers arriving at Tanzanian borders and the more than 250,000 Burundian refugees living in camps. According to international refugee law, people affected by conflict and persecution in their country of origin have a right to seek asylum in another country. Closure of borders may therefore amount to refoulement. DG ECHO will continue to closely monitor the humanitarian consequences of this decision (European Commission, 2018).

There are currently three main refugee camps of Nyaragusu, Mtendeli and Nduta, in addition to the NMC transit camp in Kigoma town, Mwisa Seperation facility in Kagera, Lumasi transit centre and Kigoma villages. As can be seen in the map image below, UNHCR has only 217 refugees registered in Dar es Salaam, mostly receiving medical care unavailable in the camps or providing protection for those who cannot receive adequate security in the camp settings.

Map of UNHCR camps in Tanzania (UNHCR, 2018b).


The exact number of refugees currently residing in Dar es Salaam is unknown. A survey was undertaken in late 2014 by the Tanganyika Christian Refugee Service (TCRS) commissioned by UNHCR to determine the level of urban refugees; however the results of this survey have not been released to the public. Yet estimates suggest that there are at least 10,000 refugees, mostly of Congolese and Burundian origin, residing in Dar es Salaam (USDS, 2012), though the actual number is likely to be considerably higher. It takes courage to be a refugee in a city, courage to be considered an unlawful urban refugee (Bwami, 2012). The continuing tensions in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and recent political unrest in Burundi also indicate that this trend seems set to continue for the foreseeable future.

A very small number of displaced persons receive official permits to live in areas outside the camps (AATZ, 2011). Up until recently, the Government of Tanzania had not publicly acknowledged the existence of the considerable number of refugees in Dar es Salaam, and given the recent influx of Burundian refugees in Western Tanzania, it seems likely that this policy will continue, as the focus remains on refugees in the camps. As the urban refugee population has not caused any major disturbances with the local community in Dar es Salaam, it appears that urban refugee presence in the city is still a peaceful co-existence between the host community and refugees. This relationship of mutual trust and neighborliness is key to urban refugee survival and existence in Dar es Salaam. Regarding the reasons for pursuing a policy that prohibits urban residence for refugees, a Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) official explained that this was as a result of security issues, and because legalization of residency in urban areas could act as a pull factor for large numbers of people.

Mapping the Refugee Population

Unlike our other RIT case studies, mapping of the refugee population in Dar es-Salaam was not deemed ethically feasible due to the precarious, insecure conditions of urban refugees living here. However, generally speaking, refugees are spatially diffused across low-income slum areas throughout the urban space.