The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says it welcomes the
Tanzanian government's decision Tuesday to grant citizenship to
thousands of Burundian refugees. The UNHCR says this action will help
to resolve one of the world's most enduring refugee problems.
Some 162,000 Burundians, who have been living as refugees in Tanzanian settlements for more than three decades, accepted the government's offer to apply for citizenship.
U.N. refugee spokesman, Andrej Mahecic, says the government of Tanzania granted citizenship August 4 to a first group of 3,568 Burundian refugees.
"The decision marks a major milestone in a program that will bring to a close one of the world's most protracted refugee situations," he said. "It also represents the first time that any country in Africa has naturalized refugees on such a scale."
In 1972, some 218,000 Burundians fled to Tanzania to escape violence in their country. Early last year, the Tanzanian government gave these refugees a choice to either return home or to apply for Tanzanian citizenship.
Mahecic says the UNHCR saw this as an opportunity not to be missed. He says the UNHCR advocated on behalf of the refugees with the governments of Tanzania and Burundi and offered to provide tangible assistance both to those who decided to return home and to those who opted to stay in Tanzania.
"So, some 162,000 of the original case load decided to stay and applied for naturalization," said Mahecic. "The final breakthrough basically came on Tuesday when the Tanzanian Minister of Home Affairs granted citizenship to the first group of applicants."
"Out of 3,570 individuals, only two were rejected. At the same time, the Tanzanian government reaffirmed its commitment to finalize the processing of the remaining population before the end of the year," he added.
In the meantime, Mahecic says the UNHCR has helped to return 45,000 Burundian refugees who decided they wanted to go back to the homes they fled decades ago. He says the agency will assist another nine thousand refugees to return in the coming months.