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Refugee population swells in Malawi

The country has hosted war refugees for decades, with a peak in the late 1980s and early 1990. As war continues in some countries in Africa's Great Lakes Region, the number of people seeking refuge in Malawi has risen more than tenfold in just under five years.
Charles Banda

Malawi's Commissioner for Disaster Preparedness, Relief and Rehabilitation Lucius Chikuni said the refugee population was about 900 in June 1998, but it has now risen to 16,000.

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) says that unless the multiple conflicts and insurgencies end in the Great Lakes region, Malawi would continue to experience an influx of refugees from that area.

UNHCR says while there were only 900 refugees in 1998, the number rose to 6,000 refugees early last year, and is now pegged at 16, 000 and the refugees are kept at Dzaleka Camp in Dowa District.

UNHCR chief of mission in Malawi, Michael Owor, says Dzaleka Camp, which was a former maximum security prison, is congested and can no longer hold refugees, who are still trickling in.

"This is far beyond its capacity and negotiations between UNHCR and the Malawi government are underway to reopen Luwani Camp at Neno, in southern Malawi, which accommodated Mozambican refugees in the 1990s."

He added: "Dzaleka has actually become too small. Our last count in April 2003 indicated there were 15,875 refugees at the camp and the figure must be well over that now because they (asylum seekers) are still trickling in."

He explained that the country has been receiving between 200 and 300 asylum seekers every month.

"We have been monitoring the situation at entry points in Karonga (northern border with Tanzania) and Chitipa (the northern border with Zambia) and the situation shows a continued influx of refugees from the Great Lakes area," Owor said.

Owor says the refugee agency and the government are doing everything possible to take care of refugees. He explains that this has been possible with the support from donor government and agencies. He singled out the United States as one of the countries that is supporting the refugee agency in looking after the refugees.

Owor says this year the American government has for instance provided US$200,000 for purchase of medical equipment at Dzaleka Refugee Clinic. Last year the American government also provided money for drilling four boreholes.

Asked if there are any plans to repatriate the refugees to their countries as there are media reports that in some country of the region peace talks between government and rebels are going on smoothly, Owor ruled out the possibility of repatriating the bulk of refugees to their countries of origin in the short term. "As long as the current situation prevails in those countries we cannot talk of repatriation now," he said. "We are actually not there to force them to go back when they are facing several dangers, including prosecution in their countries of origin, He added.

The UNHCR local chief said that what is important now perhaps is for people involved with refugees and asylum seekers to be equipped with necessary skills that can help them spot terrorists wishing to enter Malawi under the guise of asylum seeking.

Owor said there is need to train immigration officers, the police, religious and traditional leaders as stakeholders on how they can justify who genuine asylum seekers are.

"We need to train the stakeholders the skills, otherwise they will admit people with sinister motives without key justification to asylum or deny those with a genuine cause. We want them to be alert, have the skills and, above all, to be able to track down terrorists," he said.

We want to train all the people directly or indirectly involved with refugees, particularly those manning the borders, so that they can fully understand that asylum seekers and refugees have rights and obligations as human beings, Owor said. "But at the same time they must be acquainted with the skills of asking the right questions to those people
seeking asylum so that those with evil intentions can be tamed, he added.

Owor said the UNCHR wants the asylum seeking process in Malawi to be uniform so that those seeking asylum should not find other entry points into the country easier than others.

He, however, said that Malawi has a good record as regards the respect of asylum seekers' human rights. "Malawi has a very good record in providing favourable conditions to refugees. It has been on record as having very high regard for human rights for asylum seekers, said Owor.

Commissioner Lucius Chikuni says that although some refugees bolt away from Dzaleka Camp and indulge themselves in illegal activities such as armed robbery, drug trafficking, and money laundering, the country would still continue hosting them.

He says Malawi cannot neglect housing refugees as it is party to the 1951 United Nations Convention and the 1969 Organisation of African Unity (OAU) now African Union (AU) convention, to take care of people fleeing their states.

While Chikuni says Malawi freely hosts refugees, intermittent joint surprise swoops by the police and immigration has resulted in some illegal aliens being repatriated. Early this year 70 foreigners were nabbed and repatriated.

Home affairs minister, Monjeza Maluza, accepts that the current spate of armed robberies, car thefts and hijackings are a result of infiltration of illegal immigrants operating a syndicate with other criminals in southern African countries in cross-border crime activities.

'We observe that most motor vehicle thefts are being committed by illegal immigrants. The problem is that we give them refugee status ourselves,' said Maluza.

Last December the government announced that it was working towards reviewing the Immigration Act to seal loopholes in order to curb the influx of foreigners who circumvented the present law.

Meanwhile Malawi government is reviewing its Refugee Act governing the admission and treatment of foreign asylum seekers following a spate of violent armed robberies involving suspected war refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Malawi deputy commissioner for relief and rehabilitation Willy Gidala said government had been forced to review its refugee policies following indications that heavily armed refugees were behind an unprecedented rise in violent vehicle hi-jacking, robberies and murders in the country. There is always at least one foreigner from the Great Lakes region in every criminal gang that is caught for armed robbery or motor vehicle theft, Gidala said. The trend proves that Malawi's generous open door policy for refugees from war-torn regions is being abused.

Gidala stressed that the UNHCR had agreed in principle to participate in the policy review to ensure that any amendments to the Refugee Act met UN guidelines.

Gidala also expressed concern that refugees were violating local regulations that they remain in holding camps and were instead "roaming free through Malawi's city streets. These refugees are insulting their hosts by breaking the rules. They are not allowed to wander about freely or engage in business. They should appreciate Malawi's hospitality and not spoil our attitude towards all refugees, he said.

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