Tanzania’s domestic law currently requires refugees to live in internment camps, established in otherwise sparsely populated regions of the country. Asylum Access advocates for the rights of all refugees in Tanzania, but the legal services predominantly serve those refugees who have chosen to live without authorization in Dar es Salaam. Among the reasons that have been heard from refugees for choosing to live in Dar es Salaam, despite domestic laws prohibiting it, is a desire to work, even if without permission and in the informal economy. Other reasons included fears for their own safety or that of their children, in particular a fear that adolescent refugee girls will be subject to sexual abuse in the camp.
Asylum Access’s legal services and community legal empowerment have helped refugees navigate life in Dar es Salaam, including helping some obtain legal status and the right to engage in self-employment. Policy advocacy is showing progress as well. Currently, the organization leads a civil society network that has been asked to provide recommendations to the government about the development of a policy that would allow refugees to live outside the camps should they so choose.
In addition, the team found it helpful to engage allies who have not historically focused on Tanzania’s refugee population. Through strategically building the refugee rights movement by involving new entities and individuals, Asylum Access can build a broader base of support for policies that respect the human rights of refugee children and adults. This movement-building engages both local actors concerned with human rights more broadly, such as the Tanzania Women Lawyers’ Association and other women’s rights groups, and international actors focused on issues of economic development (e.g., the World Bank).
“Movement-building” may sound like an amorphous term, and in some ways it is: Movement-building can encompass many activities. The organization has had conversations with government and multilateral development agencies where Asylum Access’s role is to explain the links between violation of refugee rights and barriers to economic development. Conversely, team members have explained the economic boon of allowing refugee children to access education and of allowing refugee parents to start businesses or obtain jobs. Education sessions have been held for a variety of audiences, showcasing the widespread legal barriers to refugees’ employment and entrepreneurship as uncovered in the organization’s Global Refugee Work Rights Report—and recent research from Uganda, Tanzania’s neighbor, about the economic and social benefits of the country’s relatively new policies allowing refugees to access employment markets. Human rights organizations in Tanzania have been invited to join TAnzania REfugee and Migration NETwork (TAREMINET), a network addressing refugee human rights issues. Asylum Access has participated in human rights events such as the 16 Days campaign, which raised awareness about sexual and gender- based violence, to highlight the particular characteristics and impacts of it against refugee women and girls.
With any of these activities, predicting impact is challenging. Some prospective alliances may not solidify. Some potential allies may lack the bandwidth or interest to include refugee rights among their priorities. Asylum Access has seen, however, a widening circle of allies that increasingly express openness to refugees’ physical integration in Tanzania, marking a major shift toward improved prospects for local integration for those refugees who choose it.
As Asylum Access’s model has evolved in response to experiences in refugee-hosting environments, there have been signs that the gap between refugee children’s rights on paper and their rights in practice is slowly narrowing: In Ecuador, there are fewer refugee children turned away when they try to enroll in school. In Thailand, as noted earlier, refugee children can now be released from immigration detention without providing surety money as a condition of bail. In Tanzania, refugee children have been gotten off the street, attend school and live in more stable environments because Asylum Access is helping them and/or their parents access legal status, permission to reside in Dar es Salaam, and—for parents— the ability to lawfully engage in employment.
Like all human rights advocacy, progress is slow and setbacks occur. Even during Asylum Access’s relatively short history, a tide of refugees’ human rights ebb and flow has been seen. Ecuador’s 2008 constitution gives refugees a wide range of both substantive and procedural rights, but a 2012 Presidential Decree required that refugees apply for recognition of their status within 15 days of arrival in the country (Decreto 1182, 27)—a requirement unknown to many refugees until after the deadline had passed. Asylum Access brought litigation to challenge the 15-day limit and other procedural requirements and succeeded on the grounds that the limit was unconstitutional—as were other procedural hurdles, the Ecuadorian Constitutional Court found (Constitutional Court of Ecuador, 002-0524). The litigation took two years, however, and during that time many of those who met the international and Ecuadorian legal definitions of a refugee were denied recognition; this left them vulnerable to a wide range of more substantive rights violations such as lack of access to state services, which impacted refugee children directly, and lack of employment protections, which affected refugee parents and thus impacted their children.
Despite such challenges, I see promise in the progress of the last decade. Asylum Access has proven an important hypothesis: A pragmatic approach, focusing on making human rights a reality for refugee children, can create conditions that are more conducive to local integration in the long run.