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Is it a safe haven for refugees?

Since its Independence in 1968, Swaziland has prided itself as a welcoming refuge for displaced persons originating throughout Africa. However, the country’s hospitality was put to question when a Zambian family protested against inhuman in their residence.
James Hall

“Swaziland has always been a haven. We treat our guests well,” Prince Sobandla Dlamini, brother of the nation’s ruler, King Mswati III, told AFRICANEWS.

Dlamini has been Minister of Home Affairs, which handles immigration and refugees, since 1998. The minister’s post is one of the most powerful in government, because it determines who stays and who must leave the country. Despite Dlamini’s benign words, he reacted angrily toward a Zambian family that wished to depart what they alleged were inhuman conditions at a refugee accommodation where they were staying.

Complaining of being neglected, while they said government received a lavish allowance from international donor agencies to look after them, the family of seven caused a sensation when they camped out in front of the Home Affairs Ministry. In a conservative country where political demonstrations are banned, the protest was unprecedented, and newsworthy.

However, many Swazis were insulted when the family said they feared for their lives because of the country’s AIDS crisis. Currently, 38,6 per cent of adults are HIV positive, which is one of the world’s highest infection rates.

“It is true AIDS is frightening here,” AIDS activist Hannie Dlamini told AFRICANEWS. “But AIDS is an avoidable disease if you take precautions. It offended us when the refugees acted like the country was unclean.”

In the end, Prince Sobandla sheathed his anger, and quietly permitted the family to leave the country for an unknown destination last week. Their departure cut by about 10 per cent the number of refugees in Swaziland. Ten years ago, 30 000 refugees filled camps that were bustling with international aid workers.

Some workers in refugee management say the country is still a desired destination. One veteran in the field is Cyprian Sipho Mabuza, who became the director of the refugee section of Caritas, an NGO sponsored by the Roman Catholic Church that has been mandated by government to coordinate all matters pertaining to the country’s elastic population of refugees. Since 1995, Caritas has operated out of the old St. Theresa’s Convent in the central commercial town Manzini.

In an interview with AFRICANEWS, Mabuza said, “Caritas is a Latin word meaning ‘love as expressed in works of charity.’ We work with refugees, the destitute and elderly, and victims of natural disasters like floods and draught. The headquarters is in Rome. “We were established in Manzini in 1976 to handle Soweto student refugees after the Soweto massacre (in South Africa). In 1978, we saw refugees from the Mngomezulu and Matsenjwa clans during the conflict in Natal (South Africa), which continued for some time. In 1983, the Mozambican refugees arrived. We had a large staff to handle 30 000 Mozambican refugees at two camps. The camps were closed in 1994, and the people were repatriated.”

The closure of the Mozambican refugee camps was accomplished with much ceremony attended by dignitaries from both countries. But it did not end Swaziland’s participation in refugee management in Africa. Today, the kingdom is home to over 600 refugees.

“They originate from ten to twelve countries,” said Mabuza. “We have them from the Congo, Angola, Rwanda and Burundi.”

One of Mabuza’s co-workers, Abel Mngomezulu, explained the appeal of the small landlocked country, a place noted for traditional values. “Swaziland is a peaceful country. People who have sought asylum here correspond with people in their countries, and when they write home they say Swaziland is one of the peaceful countries in Southern Africa.”

A refugee arriving in Swaziland applies for refugee status. After the Home Affairs ministry is satisfied that the person is a genuine refugee, he or she is given a residence permit valid for two years, renewable,

The days of sprawling refugee camps are over. Those people granted asylum have the same status as any other immigrants who are issued a work permit. They are released into Swazi society, where they are free to find employment. Caritas assists with the search for work, as well as living accommodation.

“These refugees in many cases are people with real skills,” said Mabuza. This is contrary to the popular view of refugees as destitute people with little to offer the country that is their haven, he said.

“A few of the refugees in Swaziland today are employed as teachers. There is a medical doctor employed at a hospital,” Mabuza said.

The contributions of refugees in Swaziland in 2003 has shown that dependency no longer characterises those who seek the kingdom as a safe place to escape whatever persecution compelled them to flee their native countries.

“Refugees today are like any other immigrants. They may have been forced to leave their countries to come here, instead of seeking out Swaziland voluntarily, but they have a lot to offer,” said Mngomezulu. He noted that Swaziland faces a shortage of teachers and other professionals due to AIDS, which is decimating society. Swaziland’s small but persistent refugee population can offer much to the country that in turn offers these escapees a safe haven.

“We like to think that disgruntled Zambian family, and the minister’s angry reaction, was an anomaly,” said Mngomezulu. “Our record with those who have sought refuge in Swaziland has been good, and it is a record to be proud of.”

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