Thousands of asylum seekers at Dukwi Refugee Camp in Botswana may find themselves stateless and having to relive the traumatic experience of seeking refuge in other states as allegations fuel up that government is moving to close down the only refugee camp it has had since 1978.
Dukwi refugee camp which is situated about 180km outside the city of Francistown has been the home of more than 2 851 refugees from Burundi, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Namibia, Somalia, Uganda, Eritrea and Zimbabwe for years now. Although the government has managed to ensure security, peace and that they get their basic needs, the tables are now turning against the refugees as they have started living in uncertainty and restlessness of what is likely to happen to happen to them if the camp is closed down.
The government of Botswana got into a dispute with a group of Namibian refugees which is reportedly one of the largest in number, after it announced that it will implement a clause to terminate the refugee status of all Namibians currently living at the camp. The Namibians had to either take voluntary repatriation by the 31st December 2015 or risk having their refugee status revoked by the government and treated as illegal immigrants. At the time of the announcement over 700 Namibian refugees approached the courts which ruled in their favour and ordered that government was barred from revoking their status until all the issues surrounding their repatriation were solved amicably.
The government has however, as at January 2017 the Botswana Gazette has been reliably informed that the repatriation process has been started again.
“we understand that the repatriation process has been opened up again but there has not been any communication from the government regarding our pending issues that were before court. They are still not engaging us as before, the report of ‘go and see come and tell’ mission has not been provided,” one of the Namibian refugees Felix Kakula told the Botswana Gazette.
He explained that they are still willing to fight with whatever they have to ensure that both the governments of Botswana and Namibia do not force them go back when they are not ensured of their security when return, “we are waiting for that time when the government of Namibia will be open for dialogue with us so that we can find a durable solution for our unresolved issues. However it seems they are still not ready to do things the right way.”
The difficulties for the Namibians will be compounded however as they will now have to deal with the repercussions of a possible closure of the camp, “we are not sure about the news but the rumours have been going on for a while now. We have also heard that the camp is likely to be closed but the news are just from various passers-by.”
He indicated that the news of a possible closure appeared to have been validated when United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) announced that they will be scaling down and closing their office here in Botswana redirecting all the enquiries to their office in South Africa, Pretoria. UNHCR has advised that it took the decision to move to the Pretoria office after they realised the number of refugees in Botswana had decreased significantly.
“The numbers of refugees in Botswana have found a durable solution, either through voluntary repatriation or resettlement to a third country, the number of refugees in Dukwi has decreased. UNHCR is therefore realigning its programmes in Botswana. Similar approaches have been taken in a number of UNHCR offices globally where governments have strengthened their response to refugees,” stated Senior Regional External Relations officer Southern Africa, Marrku Aikomus..
According to Aikomus, UNHCR has not so far received any information from the government of Botswana regarding a possible closure of the Dukwi refugee camp.
He explained that contrary to previous communiques that they were closing their office in Botswana, they have since decided to maintain physical presence in the country.
Aikomus would not reveal the reasons that led to the change of mind by UNHCR to return to Gaborone. He also maintained that contrary to the media reports suggesting that the relations between UNHCR and the government of Botswana are strained, they keep a good working relationship.
“UNHCR will continue to provide support for various programmes aimed at assisting refugees. UNHCR is changing its presence to a national office, thus we will maintain a physical presence in the country and will provide additional support for Southern Africa, from UNHCR’s Regional Office in Pretoria.”
Sources have informed this publication that a number of refugees have approached Ditshwanelo for assistance as they are living in persistent fear of what will really happen if the camp is closed. It has also come into light that the issues currently under discussion is the restriction of movement which has arisen as a result of erecting a fence around the camp, “the refugees are reporting that they are not even allowed to plough in their gardens any more, we don’t understand why this is so, whether this is also a way of preparing them for their repatriation or what?” a source revealed.
Botswana Gazette also spoke to one of the Eritrean footballer refugees Henok Semere, 25 who confirmed that it is indeed true they are restricted in movement at the camp, and that entry and exist is controlled as they are not allowed to get out of the camp without permission. He described the situation as frustrating to them as former football players; “all we wanted was to continue with our career but with the rules by the government we cannot even get out there and approach clubs to sign us. We just sit, eat and sleep. That is all we have been doing for the whole year since we have been in the camp,” he said.
He also attested to hearing rumours that the camp might be closed down but was not sure if it is true or false as no one has ever come forth from either the government or UNHCR to verify the rumours.
Lawyer Dr. Adani whose NGO helped in the case of the 10 Eritreans football players who refused to back home after a football match in Gaborone and were granted refugee status, indicated that they have also heard of the possible closure of the camp but is not sure whose decision it is.
“I don’t know if it is the government or UNHCR but we also hear of a possible closure. There has not been any official communication regarding the matter. We hear the UNHCR is busy working on the issue and we are still waiting to hear if it is indeed true from the relevant authorities,” he said.
He also explained according to unconfirmed reports, UNHCR is working on the issue and resettlement and integration is being considered. According to sources after the lengthy exercise is completed, UNHCR will provide a report with names of refugees considered for resettlement, and different countries like United States will be approached and asked to take in some of the refugees.
The Ministry of Defense has not responded to questions sent two weeks ago regarding this reported closure while DITSHWANELO said the relevant people can be contacted on Monday and no response was provided at time of print.