Crowded in: The Dzaleka refugee camp was built in 1994 to house 10 000 people and already it is home to about 52 000. (Fanni Uusitalo)
Aisha Ndashimila dreams of becoming a medical doctor and saving lives in hospitals in Malawi.
She was born at Dzaleka refugee camp some 16 years ago to parents who fled the Rwandan genocide, and has never lived in any country besides Malawi. Ndashimila’s dreams of becoming a medical doctor have, however, suffered a setback.
In 2020, the government ordered that all refugees in Malawi cease living outside Dzaleka, the country’s sole refugee camp, which is a heavily congested collection of shacks that are home to more than 50 000 refugees.
Prior to the sudden decision, refugees and asylum seekers lived freely in other places in Malawi, apart from the camp. Some thrived as business people, while others studied various disciplines including medicine and served in the country’s health services. Some married and had children with locals.
The government order means Ndashimila’s dreams must now be restricted to the camp, where there are no tertiary education facilities and the sanitation facilities are deplorable.
“I woke up today at 2am to fetch water and stayed in the queue until 9am because the whole camp has a single water kiosk with tap water,” she said.
The Dzaleka refugee camp was designed to accommodate 15 000 refugees but the population has exploded, leading to unrest and causing public health fears.
On Tuesday, scores of refugees inside the camp protested to officials about delayed cash assistance to buy food and the removal of some from the beneficiaries list. Many of the protesters — who burnt tyres and held up posters as they marched to present their grievances to United Nations officials — say they can no longer feed their families.
“We have stayed months without any assistance and many of us have gone for three months without money for food, our families are suffering,” said one of the refugees, who did not want to be named for fear of reprisals.
When the government ordered refugees back to the camp, citing security concerns that have not been publicly explained, the refugees rushed to court and obtained an injunction to halt the action. The relief was only temporary.
Last month, a judge ordered the cancellation of the injunction on technical grounds after a ruling that one of the applicants had misinformed the court about his background. This cleared the path for the government to implement its plans.
The refugee wants another hearing, and has appealed to the supreme court for a hearing.
According to Bantubino Leopard, a spokesperson for the refugees, fears of a chaotic departure remain despite the court ordering a phased relocation that will see those in rural areas — presumed to have few assets — moved first, followed by those in urban locations, deemed to have more physical assets such as shops, restaurants, bars and manufacturing companies.
“The high court ruled that all the claimants live in urban areas while there are clearly many claimants who are refugees and asylum-seekers and live in rural areas. Hence there is clearly sufficient interest among the claimants as a majority lives in rural areas and have been unjustly disqualified in the ruling of the high court,” Leopard said.
“Healthcare, educational and livelihood capacities are already far below decent with the current capacities deemed suitable for not more than 10 000 while currently more than 53 500 refugees and asylum-seekers reside there in inhumane conditions. This is why the refugees and asylum-seekers that reside outside the camp ask the court to take this into account.”
The UN agency responsible for refugees, the UNHCR, opposes the relocation and has called for a suspension of the exercise.
“The UNHCR continues to engage with the government of Malawi and advocate for suspension of the relocation order or delay the relocation of refugees and asylum-seekers until such a time when Luwani is rehabilitated to accommodate people in safety and dignity,” the UNHCR Malawi’s communications manager Kenyi Lukajo said in an interview.
So far, not a single refugee has voluntarily relocated to the camp since the ruling and the government has yet to start forceful relocations, according to the UNHCR, which is part of a national task team formed by the government to oversee the process.
To try to address the congestion woes at Dzaleka, which was opened in 1994, the government has granted the UNHCR permission to reopen an old refugee camp, Luwani, where some of the relocated refugees will be settled.
But the UNHCR said the agency is yet to secure the funds to rehabilitate the facility “in safety and dignity”.
Michael Kaiyatsa, the executive director at the Centre for Human Rights Rehabilitation, a rights watchdog based in Lilongwe, described the situation in the camp as “terrible” due to overcrowding.
“The move could have catastrophic consequences. Already the conditions in the camp have reached crisis levels. Health, water and sanitation facilities are already stretched thin by the camp’s sheer population. Daily survival is a nightmare. Due to reduced funding, the World Food Programme has reduced food rations provided to refugees by almost 75%,” said Kaiyatsa.
“This has worsened the already dire food situation in the camp. As things stand, the conditions in the camp amount to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment prohibited by section 19(3) of our Constitution and Article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.”
He urged the government to put on hold the relocation plans until the conditions improve, and in the meantime to revert to its earlier policy of allowing refugees with the means to support themselves to live outside the camp.
According to the UNHCR, the camp has 21 530 individuals with refugee status while 30 910 are asylum-seekers and 238 are classified under “other concerns”. The majority of the refugees are from the Great Lakes region; 62% from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, 19% from Burundi, 7% from Rwanda and 2% from other countries. Out of the total population of 52 000, 45% percent are women and 48% children.