Last Updated: Friday, 19 January 2018, 17:46 GMT

World Refugee Survey 2009 - Zambia

Publisher United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Publication Date 17 June 2009
Cite as United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, World Refugee Survey 2009 - Zambia, 17 June 2009, available at: [accessed 22 January 2018]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Zambia figures


Zambia hosted 88,900 refugees and asylum seekers at year's end – 53,400 in camps, 4,800 in urban areas, and 30,700 mixed in with the population throughout the country. There were 47,300 from the Democratic Republic of Congo (Congo-Kinshasa), 27,100 from Angola, 5,400 from Zimbabwe and 4,900 from Rwanda.

2008 Summary

Zambia returned five Zimbabwean asylum seekers who had begun the asylum process to Zimbabwe, and blocked another five from entering the country, although it publicly denied that it had done so. The Government occasionally detained refugees for living outside designated areas or working and studying without proper permits. Officials generally sent refugees caught outside the camps back to them rather than prosecute them. Immigration officials occasionally detained asylum seekers for entering the country without proper documents.

During the year, UNHCR began working with the Legal Resources Foundation (LRF) to provide legal aid to detained refugees, and authorities allowed both UNHCR and LRF to visit detainees.

Fighting in Congo-Kinshasa slowed repatriation of Congolese refugees in Zambia – only 10,000 of a planned 20,000 for the year had returned by year's end. The Government issued 185 international travel documents to refugees during the year.

Although the 1970 Refugees Control Act (Refugees Act) entitles refugees to identity documents, the Government had not issued them to camp-based refugees by year's end but did agree to do so in 2009. Those living in urban areas with official permission received them, although police sometimes arrested them despite the cards.

In February the Government joined the UN High Commissioner for Refugees' efforts to provide micro-loans and skills training for refugees in Meheba to farm and sustain themselves.

In early June, Zambia granted asylum to 12 out of 13 Zimbabwean opposition members who fled their country as the presidential run-off election approached. Officials sent them to Maheba refugee camp. Some 25,000 Zimbabweans fled xenophobic violence in South Africa for Zambia, on top of at least 10,000 already in the country, leading to increased resentment of them.

In response to increased fighting in Congo-Kinshasa, Zambia closed off its border to refugees fleeing the violence in October. Reportedly, officials worried that refugees could spread an Ebola-like hemorrhagic fever that killed at least one Zambian in September.

Law and Policy

Refoulement/Physical Protection

Zambia's Refugees Act lacks provisions that protects against refoulement.

Zambia is party to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (1951 Convention), its 1967 Protocol, and the 1969 Convention governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa, but maintains reservations to the 1951 Convention's right to work, education, freedom of movement, and international travel documents. The Refugees Act does not specifically protect refugees from "refoulement", though it forbids deportation in cases where the refugee would be at risk of physical attack or punishment for an "offence of a political character." Otherwise, the Refugees Act authorizes officers to deny asylum without any reason. The Refugees Act also permits the Minister to declare groups of persons to be refugees, prima facie.

Joint provincial and district operations committees receive and screen asylum seekers in border areas, and most refugees they screened received status on a prima facie basis. Committees sometimes refer cases of asylum seekers with individual persecution claims to the Lusaka-based Office of the Commissioner for Refugees. The NEC, including a representative from UNHCR as an observer and adviser, then conducts an individual status determination.

There is no appeals procedure, but asylum seekers can request a second interview by the NEC or ask the Minister of Home Affairs to review the case. Zambia does not allow refugees to have legal representation, but UNHCR is occasionally intervening on behalf of asylum seekers. Officials only verbally inform rejected asylum seekers that the NEC will review their rejections.

Zambian legislation does not permit the granting of permanent residency or citizenship to refugees, because the Constitution and the Citizenship Act require ten years of "ordinary residence" for eligibility, and the Government does not consider refugees ordinary residents.

Zambian police lack the resources to properly provide security in the refugee camps, leading refugees to take matters into their own hands. Female officers are also in short supply, with an average of one per camp, making it even more difficult to prevent or prosecute sexual and gender-based violence and child abuse.

Detention/Access to Courts

Zambian immigration authorities detain refugees and asylum seekers for staying outside assigned areas and working or studying without authorization. They also detain asylum seekers who enter or stay without documentation.

Detention facilities in the camps are in extremely poor condition, and usually do not have separate holding cells for women or children.

The Government does not separate refugees in pre-trial detention from the general prison population, and there is severe overcrowding, poor sanitation, and inadequate food. The Government allowed UNHCR, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and diplomats to visit detention facilities but there was no systematic monitoring of refugee detention.

The Immigration Department issued asylum seekers permits pending resolution of their cases. Authorities tended to respect the identity documents but occasionally officers detained refugees and asylum seekers holding valid documentation and some extorted bribes from refugees and asylum seekers.

While refugees and asylum seekers can challenge their detention in court, they cannot challenge other restrictions because of Zambia's reservations to the 1951 Convention.

The Refugees Act requires refugees to register with the Government and entitles refugees to identity documents, but the Government does not issue identity cards to camp- or settlement-based refugees. It issues electronic identity cards only to those who registered in urban areas based on the decisions of the Sub-Committee on Urban Residency. The Office of the Commissioner for Refugees approved a motion to issue identification cards to camp-based refugees in 2009.

Gaps in the registration of refugees leave some without documentation, and some children are born stateless because their births are not properly recorded.

The Constitution grants fundamental rights to all persons in the country, not limited to citizens, including the rights to life, liberty, property, protection from torture or degrading treatment, and protection of the law. It includes, however, exceptions to the right to personal liberty in the cases of people who enter the country illegally and for cases in which the Government wishes to ban people from traveling to certain parts of the country. The Constitution extends its due process guarantees to persons generally, including those of presumption of innocence, notice of charges, assistance of counsel, examination of witnesses, interpretation of proceedings, punishment only for actions criminal at the time of commission, protection from double jeopardy and compulsory self-incrimination, and impartial tribunals.

The Refugees Act allows officers to arrest refugees without warrants if they reasonably suspect them of even attempting to violate the Act. Violations include failure to obey or obstruction of "any lawful order of the Commissioner or a refugee officer" and carry penalties up to three months' imprisonment. The Act authorizes officers and anyone acting under their authority to use "such force, including the use of firearms, as may be reasonably necessary to compel any refugee to comply with any order or direction made or given under this Act" and gives officers immunity from "any liability, action, claim or demand whatsoever" for their actions under the Act.

Freedom of Movement and Residence

The Government requires refugees to live in refugee camps or settlements, and more than half of them do so. Many refugees live in urban areas without identification.

Zambia maintains a reservation to the 1951 Convention reserving authority to designate where refugees could live. The Refugees Act authorizes the Minister to designate settlements and to require refugees to live in them and allows officers to issue permits to leave or reside elsewhere "subject to such terms and conditions as [they] think fit."

Refugees may qualify to live in urban areas if they meet certain conditions, including whether they hold work, study, or self-employment permits; have family living in urban areas; suffer from health problems not treatable in the districts; or are at risk of serious physical harm in the camps. The Sub-Committee on Urban Residency decides on urban residence applications.

Refugees who travel outside these areas without authorization can be arrested and detained by immigration authorities. The Refugees Act requires camp-based refugees to have a gate pass from the Refugee Officer to exit camps or settlements. Refugees in cities wishing to travel within the country have to obtain authorization from the Commissioner of Refugees.

Refugees wishing to travel outside Zambia apply to UNHCR, which forwards their applications to the Office of the Commissioner for Refugees, which authorizes the Passport and Citizenship office to issue them travel documents. Like nationals, they have to provide reasons for traveling before the Government will issue documents. Zambia maintains a reservation the 1951 Convention's right to international travel documents and reserves the right not to allow refugees who left the country to return.

Right to Earn a Livelihood

Refugees must have permits to work legally, and obtaining them is a long and difficult process. Refugees who wish to work have to submit an application for a permit to the Office of Immigration with a letter from the Commissioner of Refugees. Work permits cost up to $500 annually. The Labor Department of the Office of Immigration ensures that there are not enough Zambians to fill the positions, usually in the fields of medicine, nursing, and education.

Refugees and asylum seekers enjoy the protection of labor legislations as do nationals but cannot receive state benefits such as pensions or old age and disability allowances.

Refugees and asylum seekers applying for self-employment permits have to invest $25,000 in Zambia. Those who work without authorization risk arrest, detention and prosecution.

Zambia maintains its reservation to the 1951 Convention's right to work, reserving the right to require refugees to apply for permits and to grant them rights no more favorable than those of aliens generally. The 1967 Immigration and Deportation Act, amended in 1994 (IDA), prohibits all foreigners from working, doing business, or studying at institutions without permits. The Chief Immigration Officer (CIO) can only issue permits to persons already in the country if they have sufficient qualifications, education, skill, and financial resources; there are not enough persons available in Zambia; it will likely benefit the inhabitants generally of Zambia; and the Minister directs the CIO to issue them. The permits may specify conditions on the area in which the bearers can work and the kind of work they can do, "as the Chief Immigration Officer thinks fit." The validity of the permits can also be for as short a period as the Chief Immigration Officer thought fit, with possibility of renewal but to a maximum of five years from its issuance.

The IDA requires an entry permit for any foreigner to engage in business. This requires knowledge of English or an indigenous Zambian language and the permission from the Minister of Home Affairs. Applicants also have to meet the requirements of a work permit or have sufficient money to maintain themselves and their presence have to benefit the inhabitants of Zambia.

The Refugees Act permits authorities to restrict the use of or commandeer refugees' vehicles and to regulate refugees' keeping of livestock and even to force their sale or slaughter without compensation. While refugees can hold bank accounts and own cars, they cannot own, hold title to, or transfer real property such as business premises and farmland.

Public Relief and Education

The Refugees Act restricts access to the settlements but the Government allows humanitarian agencies to aid refugees. In camps, UNHCR funds and supervises health centers run by its partners to provide basic health services to refugees and the local population. The clinics refer patients with problems not treatable in the camp clinics to the closest district and provincial hospital. The medical staff, drug supplies, and equipment in the camps remains insufficient to fully meet the needs of the refugees, especially with regard to HIV/AIDS, malaria, and pregnancy.

The majority of refugees depend on food aid to survive, which could be phased out between 2009 and 2010.

Zambia maintains reservations to the 1951 Convention's right of refugees to primary education. UNHCR provides primary education in camps and settlements, but lack of resources and high turnover of teachers limits its effectiveness.

Zambia's December 2006 Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP) prepared for international donors identifies "lack of legal entitlements for refugees" as one of the "key risks for the most vulnerable groups in society." It notes that "the fact that the Government made reservations on the articles of the 1951 Convention, which guarantee refugees' freedom of movement and access to employment, requires special attention from the point of view of social protection." According to the PRSP, the Ministry of Home Affairs will "play a key role in mainstreaming the refugee issue in the national and regional development policies [and] promote compliance and domestication of international covenants vis-à-vis the protection of refugees." The PRSP also identifies the Zambia Initiative (ZI) – a program launched by the Government and UNHCR in 2002 to promote integration of refugees through programs that would benefit both refugees and Zambians – as a success of the Public Safety and Order sector. It mentions in the section on regional development that "Luapula, Northern, North-Western and Western provinces are affected by a high influx of refugees fleeing mainly from civil conflict in neighbouring countries," without indicating how they were affected.

Current District and Provincial development plans do not include refugees in their statistics or in their development strategies, including those in the western and northern provinces where the ZI was piloted.

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