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Last update: 1 July 2022 h. 10:44
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Pointing fingers

While refugees in the country are being blamed for the escalating crime rates, there has been a war of words between the government and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), with the former accusing the latter of laxity in accepting asylum seekers. But the refugee agency defends itself saying it is only there as a helper.
Charles Banda

In recent years, Malawi has been grappling with an influx of refugees and illegal immigrants, who have been blamed for the soaring crime rate and operation of businesses without required permits.

Some refugees from Dzaleka camp in central Malawi, the main home to foreigners fleeing war and persecution in their countries are said to be owning commuter minibuses and taxis. They are also engaging in importation and exportation of merchandise behind the backs of authorities. Local people are said to be colluding with the foreigners to successfully flout the law.

The Road Traffic Directorate (RTD) confirmed they had launched a campaign to investigate all vehicles suspected to be owned by foreigners. Jomo Mkandawire, RTD director, says in the past few months, 50 minibuses and taxis belonging to foreigners were impounded. The foreigners run their businesses in Lilongwe, the administrative capital of the country.

He was, however, quick to admit that tracing foreigners was proving a nightmare because they run the businesses using names of their Malawian workers. We have managed to hold some vehicles but the problem is that they are under Malawian names. We have therefore asked the police to assist us,' says Mkandawire.

When the Malawi Road Traffic Commission seized at least 40 minibuses owned by refugees for alleged violations of traffic rules and regulations, the refugees cried foul, describing the incident as blatant discrimination. Metvsela Gakumba, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo, accused Malawian authorities of violating their own commitment to international refugee protocols. "We did not come into the country via the back door. We registered as refugees. The country and the UNHCR recognises our status as refugees," he told journalists.

Gakumba said all the refugee minibus operators were given the green light to operate businesses by the department of Disaster Preparedness, Relief and Rehabilitation. According to him, the department's head Lucius Chikuni, had told them since government cannot meet all their needs they should supplement their finances by engaging in small-scale businesses.

But statements from the Immigration Department in the Ministry of Home Affairs charged that even foreigners had a right and were at liberty to operate businesses in Malawi, as long as one completed a legitimate seven -year continuous stay. Chief Immigration Officer, for the department, David Kambilonjo, said as long as the foreigners followed proper procedures, they enjoyed the fundamental right to embark on any legal business in the country of abode.

He quoted Malawi's Business Permit Law on Immigration Act 15/015 Section PRP 1986. 'Such are the provisions, but the law is silent on foreigners who marry Malawian women as one way of gaining access to operate businesses in the country even before they attain a mandatory seven year order,’ Kambilonjo pointed out.

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

UNHCR argues that the administration of asylum seekers is the responsibility of the Malawi government, which is a signatory to several international conventions governing the status of refugees.

Head of UNHCR in Malawi Michael Owor countered that his office only acted as an advisor to government, while the whole administration rested in government's hands.

'UNHCR helps to cope with its refugees problem. Malawi ratified the 1951 UN convention on the protection of refugees. What this means is that it agreed to grant asylum within its territory to people fleeing persecution either because of their political or religious opinion,' reasoned Owor.

Owor, reacting to accusations by immigration authorities about UNHCR's hasty screening of illegal aliens and granting of refugee status, said it was not proper to push blame on the agency while there was a whole committee.

Intermittent joint surprise swoops by the police and immigration has not done much to curb illegal aliens. Early this year 70 foreigners were nabbed and repatriated. But lack of resources has prevented the government from carrying out regular cleaning exercises.

Indeed, the authorities are now beginning to experience the burden. 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.

Malawi harbours about 6,000 refugees mainly from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Rwanda, Angola, Sudan and Somalia. They are currently being housed at Dzaleka Refugee Camp in the central district of Dowa.

Malawi has hosted war refugees for decades, with a peak in the late 1980s and early 1990s when the small country of roughly 10 million people hosted over one million refugees from neighbouring Mozambique. The refugees, almost all of whom have since returned home, fled to Malawi to escape a 16-year civil war between Mozambique's ruling Frelimo and opposition Renamo parties.

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