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Malawi’s government has launched a new round of registration for people
who enter the country as refugees
The move, which was announced by the Disaster Preparedness, Relief and Rehabilitation Commission, follows incidents of refugees infiltrating local communities after absconding from Dzeleka, a refugee holding camp located in Dowa district in the country’s Central Region. Many of the refugees who abscond from Dzaleka are suspected of engaging in criminal activities. This has prompted the authorities to force them to register by the end of this year, otherwise they face deportation.
According to Lucius Chikuni, Commissioner for Disaster Preparedness, Relief and Rehabilitation, Lucius Chikuni, the re-registration exercise is being carried out in cooperation with the immigration authorities. He describes it as beneficial both to the government and in the long run, to the refugees themselves.
People have reacted to the registration exercise in a number of ways. Most Malawians commend the government for deciding to re-register refugees or those seeking asylum, saying this will enable wrong-doers to be identified and will reduce the crime rate which of late has largely been blamed on foreign nationals.
But others have expressed anger over suggestions that registered refugees will be given an opportunity to get jobs alongside Malawians, arguing that at the present time, there are few jobs available for local Malawians, following the sale of over thirty state-owned companies to the private sector, which is largely controlled by businessmen of Asian origin, especially Indians.
Defending the status of refugees, Commissioner Chikuni says that under international law, refugees have the right to get employment. He says that Malawi is not an island shut in on itself. However, he assures Malawians that his Commission will deport any foreign national who absconds from the Dzaleka refugee camp and who has thus failed to re-register.
Importance of screening refugees
Currently there are up to 16,000 refugees and asylum seekers in Malawi (population 11 million). Immigration officials say that many of the foreigners «on their books», are economic refugees who have opened up businesses and in some cases have become involved in criminal activities. At the same time, officials from the Department for Disaster Preparedness, Relief and Rehabilitation say that they have no problem with genuine refugees who are properly screened and given asylum under the obligations of the Geneva Convention to which Malawi is a signatory.
The authorities, however, confirm that they do have problems with foreigners entering the country and calling themselves asylum seekers. Asylum seekers, genuine or not, come mainly from countries of the Great Lakes region such as Rwanda, Burundi, Congo RDC; and from Somalia.
Another problem facing immigration department officials is with foreigners who try to obtain Malawian passports under false pretences. This came into the open after it was revealed that Zimbabweans, assisted by some Malawians, were trying to acquire Malawian passports by dubious means. Nigerians too, are alleged to be involved in a similar fraud.
Michael Owor is the UNHCR‘s resident representative in Malawi. He says that all countries in southern African are facing an influx of refugees and Malawi is no exception. His office is conducting the necessary screening of asylum seekers in conjunction with the immigration authorities at border posts, in order to control the situation.
A major fire in the northern city of Mzuzu in May this year revealed the extent of businesses operated by foreign nationals in the country. The fire broke out at Taifa Market in which a large number of foreign nationals especially from Tanzania and established in Mzuzu, operate businesses. A small number of Malawians also trade in the same market. Goods worth about US $500,000 were destroyed by the fire. This left at least five thousand foreigners stranded and looking for official assistance to start their businesses all over again. On this occasion, the authorities helped the foreigners with a temporary land allocation.
With a certain amount of goodwill on all sides, genuine refugees and asylum seekers can be welcomed into Malawi. It’s the bogus ones who cause the problems.
- Hamilton Vokhiwa, Malawi, November 2003 — © Reproduction authorised, with usual acknowledgment
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