May 22, 2024

In Malawi, refugees, including minors, have been forcibly moved to new locations


The government of Malawi has unlawfully and forcefully relocated refugees and asylum seekers throughout the nation, neglecting their fundamental human rights, according to a statement by Human Rights Watch. The authorities in Malawi need to quickly undo their actions and uphold the rights of all individuals to freely move, receive education, and enjoy a basic level of sustenance.

As of May 26, 2023, the Ministry of Homeland Security in Malawi reported the apprehension of 902 individuals seeking refuge or asylum from May 17 onwards. With the military’s help, the police apprehended inhabitants of Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital and neighboring districts, including men, women, and children. Their businesses were closed, and they were temporarily incarcerated in prisons before being abandoned with no possessions at Dzaleka refugee camp, located roughly 40 kilometers away from Lilongwe. Several detainees stated that they had experienced physical assaults and witnessed damage or stealing of their possessions.

According to Idriss Ali Nassah, a senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch, Malawi’s actions of forcibly moving refugees and asylum seekers to Dzaleka camp are based on misguided and exaggerated economic and security concerns. The government is pointing fingers at these vulnerable individuals for their own benefit. The authorities are engaging in both wrongful acts during arrests and unlawfully removing children from their homes, which can be categorized as forced evictions that violate the law.

In accordance with the encampment policy instituted by the government on March 27th, refugees and asylum seekers have been subjected to roundups. By April 15, the government has requested that all refugees and asylum seekers residing in both urban and rural regions either leave voluntarily for the Dzaleka refugee camp or risk mandatory relocation. The recent raids resulting in the apprehension and transfer of youngsters to Maula Central Prison, a facility with maximum security in Lilongwe, have raised significant apprehension, as per Human Rights Watch. It is against international human rights standards to confine children for immigration purposes and they should not be subjected to imprisonment in adult detention facilities.

A significant number of the kids had never experienced being housed in a refugee camp before. According to Human Rights Watch, the camps’ inadequate facilities and overcrowded classrooms could potentially result in long-term harm for individuals.

According to the Human Rights Watch, the Malawi Human Rights Commission conducted interviews with approximately 20 refugees and asylum seekers at Maula prison and Dzaleka refugee camp. These individuals claimed to have been subject to physical violence during the raids, and to have had their funds confiscated.

A 27-year-old refugee originating from the Democratic Republic of Congo, who entered Malawi in the year 2019, informed Human Rights Watch that roughly 20 police officers carrying weapons forcefully entered his home at 3 a. m May 18th was the date. He reported being held down as they beat him with a baton on his back. “I sustained injuries as a consequence. ”

He stated that he was initially brought to Maula jail and later relocated to Dzaleka camp, where countless individuals were left without sufficient means of shelter, food, or garments, making the conditions extremely challenging. He stated that some kids were taken while they were heading back home from school. New mothers and their infants are facing the predicament of having no place to rest. It appears that the officials have left us stranded in this camp without any strategy or preparation for managing our predicament.

According to the UNHCR, more than 50,600 refugees and individuals seeking asylum are being hosted in Malawi as of May. Among them, 32,000 are from Congo, almost 11,000 are from Burundi, and over 6,000 are from Rwanda. The majority of the individuals are currently residing in the refugee camp, which was designed to house a maximum of 12,000 occupants. According to UNHCR, the current population in the densely populated camp is not getting access to adequate food, healthcare facilities, clean water, proper housing, and hygiene facilities.

For a significant period, around 8,000 refugees have been residing in both the rural and urban areas of Malawi. Typically, refugees in Malawi are not permitted to pursue job opportunities or receive education beyond the confines of their camps, leading to their reliance on humanitarian assistance. Nevertheless, certain individuals, including those possessing advanced degrees, were granted authorizations to pursue work and other prospects beyond the confines of the camp.

A representative of the Burundian refugee community announced to the press that they had reached a deal with the government that enabled them to establish and manage their own small-scale enterprises in both rural and urban areas, thereby reducing their dependence on charitable donations while stationed at the Dzaleka refugee camp.

The refugees and asylum seekers residing outside of Dzaleka were instructed by the homeland security ministry in April 2021 to return to the camp due to their perceived threat to national security. The Supreme Court of Malawi had initially put a halt to the order, however, in August 2022, the Blantyre High Court overturned the injunction. The Ministry of Homeland Security has stipulated two deadlines for refugees and asylum seekers to relocate to Dzaleka camp based on their current location: November 2022 for those situated in rural areas and February 2023 for those dwelling in urban areas. The new deadline set by its directive in March was scheduled for April.

The parliament of Malawi made a statement on May 21st that indicated that refugees residing and engaging in commerce outside of authorized refugee camps without permission was in violation of local legislation. This was seen as problematic and may lead to disarray, thus rendering the existing laws on refugees ineffective.

Malawian government officials have additionally alleged that refugees are responsible for economic difficulties amongst Malawian citizens. The minister in charge of homeland security, Ken Zikhale Ng’oma, has declared that Malawi cannot accommodate refugees who operate their businesses in a manner that disadvantages Malawians. He has warned that those who resist the relocation directive will be apprehended by security personnel and forcibly transported to the closest border crossing.

The UN Refugee Agency has advised the Malawi government to reverse its decision to relocate refugees, citing concerns that the current accommodations in the Dzaleka refugee camp are already overtaxed and inadequate to accommodate any more refugees with dignity. The agency further warned that this relocation could cause significant challenges in the provision of essential services as well as maintaining protection programs.

Malawi has ratified both the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which prohibit forced evictions. Forced evictions are classified as the unconsented permanent or temporary removal of individuals, families, or communities from their homes or land, without any legal or protective measures in place. Before engaging in legal evictions, governments should exhaust all possible options by consulting those impacted while striving to avoid or reduce the need for force.

Malawi is a signatory to both the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention as well as the 1969 African (OAU) Refugee Conventions. Article 26 of the 1951 Convention acknowledges that refugees who are lawfully present in a country have the right to move freely and choose where they reside. On the other hand, article 31(2) disallows restrictions on the movement of asylum seekers unless they are deemed essential. Nonetheless, when Malawi ratified the Convention, it noted reservations about certain provisions, treating them as non-binding recommendations rather than legally enforceable. These provisions cover refugees’ freedom of movement, property rights, access to public education, and employment.

The Refugee Act of 1989 in Malawi outlines protocols for identifying refugee status, but falls short in addressing the entitlements of refugees. Human Rights Watch recommends that Malawi should reconsider its reservations to the 1951 Refugee Convention, as they conflict with the global refugee and human rights laws, and make necessary adjustments to its own refugee laws to put an end to the practice of confining refugees within camps.

Malawi’s participation in the UN General Assembly in 2018 led to its approval of the Global Compact on Refugees, signaling its commitment to implementing the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework. These tools signify a joint effort to enhance the global response towards addressing the requirements of refugees. The global compact and framework prioritize the incorporation and merging of refugees with host communities, recognizing that providing access to education and employment opportunities grants refugees the ability to attain self-sufficiency and ultimately contribute positively to the development of local economies and communities. However, authorities from Malawi have issued declarations advocating for the utilization of the camps, which contradicts the previous standpoint.

Malawi has endorsed the 2016 New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, which acknowledges that refugee camps ought to be a temporary intervention for emergency circumstances. Instead, the resolution calls for refugees to be assimilated into host communities to minimize lengthy stays and decrease their reliance on aid.

Malawi has already made a pledge to alter its policies towards refugees. In the 2019 Global Refugee Forum, promises were made to prioritize the integration of refugees into the national development plan and to consider modifying certain reservations to the 1951 Refugee Convention, specifically regarding freedom of movement, access to public schools and employment, through legal and policy reform.