Zambia: Unruly refugees sent home
|Publisher||Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN)|
|Publication Date||15 April 2010|
|Cite as||Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), Zambia: Unruly refugees sent home, 15 April 2010, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4bceb7ba1e.html [accessed 24 September 2014]|
JOHANNESBURG, 15 April 2010 (IRIN) - A shadow has fallen over Zambia's long history of generously hosting refugees from troubled countries since 36 foreigners were deported to neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), but the government says it is only trying to ensure security and order in camps that still shelter some 57,000 people.
"We are hoping that [deportations] will stop," said James Lynch, country representative for the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Zambia. The organization communicated its alarm at the expulsions to the Zambian authorities on 13 April.
Lynch told IRIN the deportees were from Meheba camp in the northwest, where a protracted demonstration by refugees over alleged corruption by officials at the settlement, run jointly by the government and UNHCR, ended violently after a police crackdown on 24 February.
"Refugees had occupied the administrative block ... [security forces] went in and dispersed some 200 people with tear gas; around 162 were arrested," Lynch said. One woman was shot and killed and several others were injured during the operation.
The first six people, "identified as the ringleaders", were sent back to DRC in February and another group of around 30 people were returned at the beginning of April, he said.
They were all taken to the Kasumbalesa border point without being told why they were being deported, or the possibility of challenging the decision under Zambian law.
The Zambian government said the action did not herald a less welcoming approach to its immense refugee population. "We have an impeccable record in terms of hosting refugees - our history is very long and we have hosted thousands," Zambia's Commissioner for Refugees, Jacob Mphepo told IRIN. "Zambia is one of the only countries in the region that has not produced refugees into our neighbouring countries."
Lynch said Zambia was "always a good example", and commended its regional role in dealing with refugees. The country began hosting refugees fleeing wars in nearby countries just two years after it became independent in 1964; by 2001 Zambia was hosting nearly 300,000 refugees, mainly from DRC and Angola.
Since political stability and security has improved in many of the countries generating refugees, the UNHCR's voluntary repatriation operation, in cooperation with the government, has helped tens of thousands go home to Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, and especially Angola and the DRC.
Refugee commissioner Mphepo said the deportations were necessary to guarantee security at Meheba camp, and to ensure that a protesting group of 200 people did not compromise essential services to the 14,000 refugee population. The camp's residents originated from Angola, Burundi, DRC, Rwanda, Somalia and Uganda.
An investigation by his office and the UNHCR into the corruption charges that had sparked the unrest revealed that the camp's population was becoming restless and had threatened to evict the protestors by force if the government failed to step in, and "that would have been absolute chaos".
The investigation also confirmed the allegations of corruption, but action had been taken immediately. "I personally dismissed three officers from that location," Mphepo said.
It's the law
In a statement UNHCR said it "fully shares the Government of the Republic of Zambia's interest in ensuring security and order in the refugee camps and settlements ... refugees and asylum seekers are bound to conform to the laws and regulations of the Republic of Zambia."
It also noted that "The consequence of their failure to do so, however, should be prosecution under national laws and not forcible expulsion to their country of origin."
Mphepo said the expulsion "happened, firstly, within the context of our own domestic laws, and of course the international conventions that we are party to."
Zambia's 1970 refugee control act "gives the minister the power to deal with refugees that are believed to [undermine] our quest to host the larger population of refugees ... particularly if what they are doing is threatening our capacity to provide security for the larger community of refugees," he pointed out.
These powers were "very rarely invoked - in the long history we have in hosting refugees this has only happened once before or twice," Mphepo said.
Zambia is signatory to the International Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, of which Article 33 reads: "No Contracting State shall expel or return a refugee in any manner whatsoever ... where his life or freedom would be threatened."
It also states that "The benefit of the present provision may not, however, be claimed by a refugee whom there are reasonable grounds for regarding as a danger to the security of the country in which he is."
In limbo but safe
The Zambian government insists that the deported Congolese are in no danger: "We had enough information to convince us that if these people were sent back to Congo they would not be persecuted. They are free and very safe," Mphepo said.
UNHCR spokesperson Melissa Fleming in Geneva said, "They went to a place near Lubumbashi [in DRC] ... they don't want to stay there. However, we do have people there monitoring them, counselling them, providing them with food, water and basic items. They are hoping to go back to their place of origin [Kasai Province] in DRC where we deem [it] also to be safe for them."
Mphepo said: "The only problem they have is poverty, but we have that here in Zambia too - and poverty is not one of the reasons for someone to be a refugee."