UNHCR rushes to move 3,000 refugees after Malawi closes a camp

News and Press Release
Originally published
DZALEKA REFUGEE CAMP, Malawi, May 25 (UNHCR) - With a government deadline for the closure of Malawi's second refugee camp looming, the UN refugee agency is rushing to prepare facilities for 3,000 refugees who must be shifted to the country's remaining camp.

While it will take another two months to transfer everyone from Luwani Refugee Camp - just completing the numerous truck convoys carrying them the 350 kilometres between camps will take several weeks - the first of the emergency facilities will be in place by the government's May 31 target.

UNHCR has hired refugees already living in Dzaleka Refugee Camp to help in the preparations, stacking grass and wooden poles that will be used with sun-dried mud bricks to build new houses. A contractor has been hired to drill the first of many new wells that will be needed.

A number of houses that had been vacated by refugees who left Malawi - either repatriating or resettled to other countries - are being repaired to provide shelter for the most vulnerable of the families who are moving from Luwani. The population of the camp, located just outside the capital Lilongwe, will rise to about 8,500.

"Our obvious concern in the camp is that the pressure of time and money are not sufficient to allow us to put facilities in place in time," said Haji Jama Abdulkadir, UNHCR's representative in Malawi. The agency is trying to allocate more funds. "We are trying to meet all the additional needs but we need extra money; it will take time and is going to be difficult."

The first priority has been building a shelter for new asylum seekers arriving in Malawi. When the government ordered the closing of Luwani late last month, it also stopped transferring all new arrivals from a small transit shelter near the northern border with Tanzania to the camp far in the south of Malawi, 30 km from Mozambique.

The transit centre, built for a maximum of 100 people, is now overflowing with more than 350. The government says it will be closed and future asylum seekers - the flow is almost all from the north - will be moved on arrival to Dzaleka.

The government actions, including a proposal to use soldiers to reinforce police on the northern border, reflect their stated reason for closing Luwani less than four years after it was opened and Dzaleka was declared full. The government had complained increasingly about the large number of young men from Somalia and Ethiopia who claim asylum but quickly disappear over the southern border to Mozambique, en route to South Africa.

"The security of the nation is at great risk," said the government statement on the closure of Luwani. It suggested many asylum seekers were former soldiers and some might have settled illegally inside Malawi. "Secondly, the country's asylum system has been abused and a lot of resources have been wasted." The statement said the flow was aided by professional traffickers and neighbouring countries had complained Malawi was not doing enough to stop it.

The government says placing new arrivals at Dzaleka, far from the border, will make Malawi less attractive as a transit route. However, some doubt the additional distance to the border will deter people determined to reach South Africa, the continent's economic powerhouse.

Although UNHCR shares the concern about abuse of the asylum regime - and recognizes the government's right to determine where refugees live - it has emphasized the difficulty in separating those in need of the protection of refugee status from economic migrants. The government has assured UNHCR that, despite tighter border controls, it remains committed to its international obligations to admit and protect asylum seekers.

Inside Dzaleka, UNHCR's immediate concern is to ensure those arriving from Luwani re-establish their lives as quickly as possible. Shelter will initially be basic - some will have to share large sleeping sheds erected for those moved from the northern border until they can make their own huts. The student population will rise about 50 percent, with no early prospect of new classrooms.

Longer term, prospects for residents of Dzaleka are not promising. Refugees in Luwani who had been awaiting a UNHCR irrigation scheme that could have made them self-sufficient, will find little opportunity now. Buildings will take up about half the camp area, leaving little land for even garden plots. For the foreseeable future they will remain dependent on food rations and other aid.

"Malawi has always been a generous host to refugees - remember it is a very poor country," said Abdulkadir. "But there is frustration among refugees who have been here for many years at the lack of jobs and opportunities. Few want to repatriate and Malawi will not consider local integration. Resettlement to other countries is the major outlet."

By Jack Redden in Dzaleka Refugee Camp, Malawi