Return to the refugee camp: Malawi orders thousands back to ‘congested’ Dzaleka

People who’ve integrated into society are expected to return to the country’s oldest refugee camp, as cost of living and anti-refugee sentiment rises

Dzaleka, Malawi’s first refugee camp, is about 25 miles north of the capital Lilongwe. Built 25 years ago in response to a surge of people fleeing genocide and wars in Burundi, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it was then home to between 10,000 and 14,000 refugees. But the camp now houses more than 48,000 people from east and southern African countries – four times more than its initial capacity.

Several hundred continue to arrive each month, according to the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), and in August 181 babies were born there. The deteriorating situation in neighbouring Mozambique is swelling the numbers further, as is the government’s recent decree that an estimated 2,000 refugees who had over the years left Dzaleka to integrate into wider Malawian society should go back, citing them as a possible danger to national security.

In April the ministry of homeland security gave a 14-day deadline for people to return to Dzaleka or risk sanctions. The decision was subject to a court injunction which has now been lifted. Now many refugees, some of whom have married into the local population, had families, and have businesses or jobs, complain they are expected to return to a camp where they have no accommodation or work.

Tensions have been rising in Malawi recently over dramatic price increases for fuel, cooking oil and other foodstuffs. Expensive new banking charges have been imposed and last week police used teargas to disperse a crowd of more than 2,000 anti-government demonstrators in the country’s financial centre, Blantyre.

The protesters attribute the rising cost of living to what they say is the “bad and incompetent” leadership of President Lazarus Chakwera. The worsening economic situation in one of the world’s poorest nations has also led to violence and vandalism against refugee businesses seen to be undercutting Malawian traders.

Dzaleka refugee camp
Washing clothes in Dzaleka refugee camp, Malawi. Photograph: Amos Gumulira/AFP/Getty

But the return to Dzaleka has highlighted concerns about the camp’s desperately overstretched water supplies and healthcare provision. There is not enough accommodation or school places for the people already there, and minister of homeland security Richard Chimwendo Banda has conceded that the camp is overcrowded.

The UNHCR has been urging the government to reconsider the directive to return people to the camp, saying that while Malawi is fully entitled to make such a request, the order to return people to an overcrowded facility has “serious human rights implications”.

Addressing the media in Lilongwe on the refugees integrated outside of the camp in April, Banda 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.

“There is not enough accommodation at the camp, but we are coming up with different resolutions to look at how best we can settle that, for example we are facilitating self-repatriation to decongest the camp,” he said.

Like many asylum seekers, Walimu Nduwayezu sees a return to Dzaleka as a punishment for himself and his family after their successful integration into the community.

Nduwayezu, 60, a Rwandan refugee and a father of four, lost his business outside the camp when the government ordered them to relocate. He is back in Dzaleka but says life is very tough and running a business at a profit is hard.

“Take a look at our house, it’s made of thatching grass and we live hand to mouth,” he says.

Another who has returned to Dzaleka, Kenyan Miburo Aajman, says: “Bringing those thousands of people outside back again will just congest the camp even more.”

The 27-year-old says there are already food shortages inside the camp.

Human rights groups are also expressing concern. Speaking at a press briefing in Lilongwe, Gift Trapence, chair of the Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC), called on the Malawian government to safeguard the refugees’ property.

“We don’t want to see scenarios where people will take advantage to grab or ransack the refugees’ assets,” he says.

Dzaleka Refugee Camp
Unrest in neighbouring countries, particularly Mozambique, has boosted the numbers living in Dzaleka. Photograph: Angela Jimu/Majority World/Getty

Fidel Butoyi, 54, a Burundian community leader who is also chairman of the peace committee at the camp, has lived at Dzaleka since it opened. His application for asylum in Malawi has been under consideration for 28 years, he says.

He says life is hard in the camp, especially for those without accommodation or shelter, and adds that hostility from local business people against refugee traders is increasing.

Political instability and social unrest in the Great Lakes and Horn of Africa regions have driven a continual flow of refugees into Malawi for more than two decades.

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Benson Kunchezera

The GuardianTramp

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