Refugees in Malawi living outside of the country’s only refugee camp in Dzaleka have been ordered to return to the camp in a move criticized by human rights agencies. An estimated 2,000 refugees are currently living amongst local communities, according to the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), some of whom are integrated into society with established businesses, jobs, and families. Although the government is acting within its rights and laws by affecting this order, the UNHCR has formally written to the government urging them to reconsider given limited facilities and existing overcrowding issues at Dzaleka, as reported by the BBC. The Human Rights Defenders Coalition, a human rights group, has also drawn attention to the potential risk this poses to the property and belongings of refugees.
The camp, which was initially set up to house 10,000 and then 14,000 people, had 46,726 residents as of August 31st, 2020, as per data from the UNHCR. Consequently, the camp has struggled with issues around sanitation, water and food availability, and education, as well as facing significant health risks as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. As of the 25th of August 2020, the UNHCR indicated a funding gap of USD 14 million for its operation in Malawi. New refugees are arriving at the camp in the hundreds each month from countries including Burundi, Rwanda, and Somalia. However, the majority of arrivals are from the Democratic Republic of Congo, which has been plagued by civil war and conflict in recent years.
In a statement to AFP news about the reasoning behind the order, Richard Chimwendo, the Homeland Security Minister, said, “We are not chasing them, and we just want them to be where they should be. Those who have businesses…will have to operate from Dzaleka. If they are married they must apply for permanent residence. We are not sending them back to their countries.” The BBC has reported that the Homeland Security ministry has also identified the “volatile situation in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado area” as a reason for the order, something which Chimwendo denies, however.
The original date for the refugees’ mandatory return was set for the 28th of April; however, a recent court injunction has since extended this briefly. Al Jazeera reports that Malawi will challenge this court injunction, which is one of many legal disputes that have arisen between refugees and the Malawian government in recent years. Since 2018, the UNHCR has highlighted the importance of focusing on settlement and self-reliance for refugees in Malawi and has been working with the government to explore integration, voluntary repatriation, or return, and resettlement options. Ordering the return of already integrated refugees, therefore, seems a significant step backward in this context, especially given the living conditions in the camp. One refugee, John Muhirwa from Congo, asked the government “to bear with us and allow us to live outside the camp for our children to return to their schools. We were living peacefully with the local people.”
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