Only in Nyasaland do refugees stay like citizens


Some 8 000 refugees are living in rural and urban locations of Malawi, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Since two weeks ago, these have been the target of the Malawi Police Service (MPS) raids in their homes and locations and wherever they might have been hiding to get them back to Dzaleka Refugee Camp in Dowa, their officially designated area of residence. Government is doing the right thing and should not stop until all asylum seekers and refugees go back to Dzaleka.

The exercise follows the expiration of the final deadline—April 15 2023—Government set in February for the refugees to voluntarily relocate to the refugee camp or face forced eviction from their homes. The first deadline was February 1. Some relocated to Dzaleka, but a majority of them disregarded the notice hoping and probably praying government was just pranking on them. That is when government set the new April 15 deadline, after which it said it would use force to evict them from their illegal settlements.

Government is now walking the talk. But in between observing the law and allowing the refugees to continue staying outside the camp, there is an outcry from the refugees and local human rights activists to suspend the exercise. UNHCR has also appealed to authorities to stop the exercise arguing it does not have the resources to meet the needs of the returnees, upgrade transit shelters and provide household items. That should not be the reason for allowing the refugees to continue breaking the law after they had been given adequate notice.

Of course, in the forced evictions and arrests, the refugees are leaving behind everything. Cases in point to be sympathized with include male refugees who run away to escape arrests but leave behind their wives and children not to mention their properties. There are also cases of school-going children of refugees who return home from school unbeknown to them that their parents have been arrested. In one case of a police raid, members of one family are said to have run in different directions to escape arrest and got separated from their 8-year-old daughter. 

In all such issues and sad stories, the Malawi Government has been portrayed as being inhumane and violating the rights of refugees. The Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR), for example, has described as cruel, inhuman and humiliating how law enforcers have been conducting the evictions and transporting the refugees to police stations. There have also been claims from the rights activists that the police are helping themselves refugees’ properties, an allegation the law enforcers have dismissed.

All things said, the refugees mostly Rwandans, Burundians and those from the DRC have absolutely no basis for their complaints. They were given enough notice—over six months to relocate to Dzaleka. They were told in no uncertain terms about how they would be removed if they failed to do so voluntarily. But they were intransigent, stubborn and uncooperative. They took things for granted. They were abusing Malawi Government’s hospitality.

Why they don’t settle in Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe or Mozambique is because they know Malawi has a soft-spot for refugees. Historically, Malawi has been weak when enforcing laws regarding asylum seekers, errant refugees and illegal immigrants. These refugees have been taking advantage of this and in the process, normalizing illegalities and forgetting they were committing crimes to the extent when Malawi started enforcing the law, the refugees, including the local human rights bodies and UNHCR now even have the audacity to cry wolf.

Unlike its neighbours, Malawi is doing its part by accommodating the East African refugees at Dzaleka. And if the camp was originally established for 12 000 people against the 56 000 it is now hosting, UNHCR should long have expanded it to take in the growing number of asylum seekers. If Government had started the current exercise a long time ago, UNHCR would long have started to do the needful. Government should therefore not relent until all asylum seekers and refugees are relocated to Dzaleka Refugee Camp. That is where they belong. UNHCR will find money to accommodate more refugees at Dzaleka.

How government is handling the refugees issue is exactly how illegal immigrants to South Africa, including Malawians, are treated. They are rounded up and if found not to have proper residence documents, they are sent to holding camps awaiting repatriation. Since May 23 2020, that is how the Malawi Government has even been using its money to bring back the 30 000 Malawians that have been successfully brought back home from the rainbow nation. And more are coming. How different are the Burundian and Rwandan refugees who transgress the law in Malawi? Where are the human rights activists when Malawians are being repatriated from Joni?

The post Only in Nyasaland do refugees stay like citizens first appeared on The Nation Online.