Thousands of long-integrated refugees have been ordered to return to the camps by the government of Malawi.
UNHCR notes that with an initial capacity of 10,000 to 14,000 refugees in 1994, the camp now houses 49,386 people and several hundreds continue to arrive each month making the camps terribly overcrowded.
According to the UN, there are an estimated 2,000 refugees residing outside the camp at Dzaleka, about 40 kilometres (30 miles) north of the capital, Lilongwe.
Many of the refugees have lived there for years, setting up businesses in the town or marrying Malawians and having children but the government argues they pose a potential danger to national security by living among locals.
while addressing this issue, Homeland Security Minister Richard Chimwendo remarked “… we are not chasing them away, … we just want them to be where they should be.”
He added that those who have businesses will have to operate from Dzaleka.
“If they are married they must apply for permanent residence” instead of “just spreading themselves across the country. We are not sending them back to their countries,” he argued.
According to the UN refugee agency UNHCR in Malawi, the directive is in line with the country’s encampment laws, but advised the government to reconsider.
According to an official communication the UNHCR received from the Homeland Security Ministry, the decision was also taken in light of “security concerns in to protect both refugees and host communities following the volatile situation in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado area”.
Many refugees have expressed their disastisfaction to this decision, while also appealing to the government to reconsider the decision.
Jean Minani, a longtime Burundian refugee who resides out of the camp, is among many who object to the order.
The deadline for refugees to return to the camp was April 28, but a last-minute court injunction gave them a brief respite.
“We are not comfortable” with the idea, Minani said, voicing fears of catching Covid-19 in the over-crowded camp.
He also feared the move would disrupt their children’s education while they are facing exams, and he scoffed at the monthly $5 worth food ration (four euros).
“Some of us have married Malawian women and some Malawian men have married refugees. We don’t know what will happen to our children,” John said.
The minister admitted there was not enough accomodation at the camp, but vowed “we are looking at how best we can settle that.”
Burundian national Ntizo Muheba, who arrived in Malawi in 2005, has returned to the camp but is sleeping rough for lack of accommodation there.
“I have four children, and it is hard to live like this,” he said.
About 62 percent of the refugees are from the Democratic Republic of Congo, 23 percent from Burundi, 14 percent from Rwanda while the rest are from Somalia and Ethiopia.
Congolese refugee John Muhirwa pleaded with 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.”
Rights groups have urged the government to treat the refugees with dignity and safeguard their financial property.
While the UNHCR acknowledged that the government has legal grounds for ordering the relocation, it warned of “serious human rights implications”.
In an email response to AFP, it said schools would be congested and water supplies would be stretched as well as health facilities.
Meanwhile, Malawi insists it will challenge the court injunction, the latest in a series of legal tussles between the government and the refugees since 2016.