/ 24 May 2023

Families trucked off to prison in Malawi crackdown on expatriates

An Army Truck Transporting Refugees From Maula Prison To Dzaleka Refugee Camp On Thursday Evening (2) (1) (1)
Forced out: Families are shuttled from Maula Prison to Dzaleka. Photo: Jack McBrams

In pre-dawn raids, police in Malawi’s capital Lilongwe bundled families, including nearly 120 children, into trucks and dumped them at the heavily congested Maula Prison.

They did so on the assumption that the people they were detaining were there illegally, without offering an opportunity to prove otherwise. The ministry of homeland security said their credentials would only be screened later, in the prison itself.

In the wake of the raids last week, hundreds of foreign-owned businesses remained closed as their owners went underground.

At Mgona township, where Burundian businessmen run large groundnut export enterprises, police and military loaded 38m shipping containers onto trucks. A police officer at the scene refused to say where they were being taken.

The raids follow a state decree in March that refugees and asylum seekers were to relocate to Dzaleka refugee camp by 15 April. The government has designated Dzaleka as the only location where they may legally reside. About 8 000 people had settled outside it.

Malawi hosts 56 304 refugees and asylum seekers, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency. More than half of these people fled the Democratic Republic of the Congo and most of the rest are from Burundi, Rwanda and Horn of Africa countries. 

Dzaleka, which was set up in 1994 to accommodate 12 000 people, now accommodates nearly 50 000 in its 17 734 households.

Leaders of refugee communities were stunned to see their people “hounded like dogs while they slept”, said Leopold Bantubino, leader of the Burundi community in Lilongwe. He said they had an agreement with the government that allowed refugees of some means to start and run small businesses in town, “so that they do not rely on handouts in the camp”.

Jado Bibakumana, a Rwandese/Burundian national who runs a small business in Lilongwe, said he was woken up, assaulted and bundled into a police truck.

“They just dropped us here and we don’t know what will happen next,” he said. “We have no food or blankets. One day I will go back home and tell the story of people who arrest children and pregnant women.”

The raids have been condemned by Malawi’s Human Rights Defenders Coalition, which said that the action only served to exacerbate the suffering of refugees. “By moving them away from urban areas, the government is isolating and marginalising these vulnerable individuals, denying them access to essential resources, support networks, and the opportunity to rebuild their lives,” a spokesperson said.

The refugee agency warned in April against moving the people to the camp outside Lilongwe. “The relocation means that children will have to leave their schools, and for breadwinners to abandon their employment or small businesses and return to a camp where they will be dependent on humanitarian assistance.”

The ministry of homeland security said it had rounded up 408 people, including 202 men, 117 children and 89 women.

Ministry spokesperson Patrick Botha would not say whether the raids would continue or be expanded beyond Lilongwe “This is an operation. We cannot divulge the details because it then ceases to be an operation.”

This article first appeared in The Continent, the pan-African weekly newspaper produced in partnership with the Mail & Guardian. It’s designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy here.