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Cabo Ligado Analysis: The refugees returned by Tanzania

Almost 10,000 Mozambican refugees to Tanzania have been returned back across the border, allegedly because of security concerns on the part of Tanzania

This article is excerpted from the Cabo Ligado monthly report looking back at June 2021, published on 19 July 2021

The humanitarian drama experienced by Mozambican citizens trying to flee violence in northern Cabo Delgado continues. In June alone, around 1,270 Mozambicans were forcibly deported from Tanzania, bringing the number of refugees deported from that country since the start of 2021 to 9,753 individuals, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Mozambican refugees are sent back home across the border at Negomano, Mueda district, where they are distributed in several IDP centres. UNHCR claims that Tanzania has refused asylum requests to Mozambican nationals and that those stranded at the Tanzanian border do not receive medical assistance, food, or shelter. The situation is made worse by high inflation in Mozambique that impacts the cost of living along the Mozambique-Tanzania border.

According to Mozambican authorities, the repatriation of nationals fleeing Palma is part of an agreement between Mozambique and Tanzania in which Tanzania conducts the repatriations due to security concerns. Despite Mozambique's complacency in the compulsory repatriation of Mozambicans to Tanzania, the UNHCR has criticized Tanzania's attitude. The UN body has called on Tanzania to allow the free movement of people fleeing conflict in search of international protection, security, and assistance, and urged the Tanzanian government not to violate the principle of non-refoulement codified in the 1951 Geneva Convention protecting refugees.

UNHCR's reports about deportations and ill-treatment of refugees are corroborated by several testimonies Cabo Ligado gathered from Mozambicans who sought asylum in Tanzania and who were later returned to Mozambique. After the attack on the village of Palma on 24 March, several survivors chose to walk to the Tanzanian border in search of safety, rather than taking the road west to Pundanhar. The westward route was not viable because it was frequented by insurgents. For those sheltering in the resettlement village of Quitunda, the southern route by boat to Pemba was nearly impossible, as there were few ships and the use of the coastal route was banned by the Mozambican Maritime Police. Those who managed to travel by boat were at serious risk of being ambushed or captured by insurgents on the high seas. The displaced people walking towards the Tanzanian border were mostly women, children, and the elderly, sometimes carrying huge luggage. Few had documentation for their entry into Tanzania. The trip was made by the road that connects the main village of Palma and Quionga to the border with Tanzania.

Many of the displaced people who fled Palma stopped temporarily in Quirindi, a village east of Quionga, and when they could afford it, they made their way to the Namoto border post, which separates Mozambique and Tanzania. One source, who was in Quirindi shortly after having escaped the Palma attack, reports that moto-taxi drivers charged $23.64 (1500 meticais) per household from Quionga to the Namoto border, at a time when a litre of gasoline cost $9.46 (600 meticais). Those who could not afford the costs of moto-taxi were forced to walk by foot to the border post. Later on, displaced people from Palma were faced with other challenges.

A source who was part of a group that traveled to the border between Mozambique and Tanzania said he was surprised by the reports that the authorities had suspended the reception of Mozambicans in Tanzania, and anyone found transporting Mozambicans would be severely penalized. This forced Mozambicans seeking asylum to be detained on the Mozambican side for several days, without protection and medical assistance. Mozambicans who were part of the group reported that the cost of living at that point was unbearable. Individuals already known by the Tanzanian authorities made the crossing in search of food to be sold on the Mozambican side. However, the cost of basic necessities was quite high. A kilogram of rice or corn cost $3.15 (200 meticais). The situation was exacerbated by the fact that displaced people were forced to remain stationed at the border for more than twenty days, which meant that most of them ran out of savings in the campsites on the Mozambican side.

Lack of money prevented many from choosing to travel clandestinely to Tanzania. Clandestine boat crossings cost $7.88 (500 meticais) and were usually made at night. In addition to financial difficulties, many were unable to get a place on the boats because the boat trips were infrequent and demand was high. Arriving in Tanzania, the Mozambicans made their way to Kilambo in Mtwara where they were subjected to searches and interrogation by the Tanzanian police authorities. Days later, the Mozambicans were transported in military vehicles from Kilambo to the border post at Negomano, on a journey that took up to seven hours without food assistance. Once they arrived at the border with Mozambique, the refugees were handed over to the Mozambican authorities and these authorities, in turn, assigned the displaced to various IDP camps in Negomano.

Some displaced people who passed through Negomano said they felt relieved when they arrived there, as they were reunited with their fellow countrymen and received support from humanitarian agencies, something that did not happen on the other side of the border. However, a significant number of repatriated Mozambicans found themselves separated from their families, both during the flight from Palma and on arrival in Tanzania. They thus found themselves in Negomano without family support, relying exclusively on humanitarian aid.

Those in IDP centers in Negomano have different perspectives on their future. Some of those who fled Palma refuse to leave Negomano for southern Cabo Delgado or other provinces because they believe that they will have an unbearable life due to the lack of financial capacity to start a new life elsewhere. For now, they content themselves with the support provided by humanitarian agencies and by the government of Mozambique, the latter of which has been allocating land for cultivation and construction of housing to displaced people living in the Negomano area. Others simply choose to head towards Montepuez or Pemba in search of safer places, given the trauma of violence.