Read, Debate: Engage.

Mozambican insurgency brews problems for refugees in the region

September 13, 2021
topic:Refugees and Asylum
tags:#Mozambique, #refugees, #Cabo Delgado, #Rwanda
located:Mozambique, Rwanda, Zimbabwe
by:Cyril Zenda
As the insurgency that has rocked northern Mozambique since 2017 unsettles some governments in Africa, some of them have responded by tightening screws on members of refugee communities within their borders.

In April, Malawi’s Homeland Security minister, Richard Chimwendo took refugees and asylum seekers that have lived freely in the southern African country by surprise when he gave them a 14-day ultimatum to move into Dzaleka, the country’s only refugee camp.  

The refugees and asylum seekers, most of whom have, over the years, established thriving businesses and intermarried with locals, met the ultimatum with resistance. They challenged the ultimatum in court and won a reprieve, but the government is contesting that reprieve, insisting that the foreign nationals “pose a potential danger to national security by living among locals.”

“We are not chasing them, and we just want them to be where they should be,” an adamant Chimwendo insisted. “Those who have businesses […] will have to operate from Dzaleka.” “If they are married they must apply for permanent residence instead of just spreading themselves across the country. We are not sending them back to their countries,” he argued.

The surprise move by Malawian authorities coincided with the Southern African Development Community’s (SADC) deployment of a technical team to Mozambique’s northern Cabo Delgado province, where an Islamic State-linked insurgency has been gaining traction

The SADC member-states are trying to help the Mozambican government defeat the four-year old insurgency that is threatening the exploitation of newly discovered gas reserves. 

SADC military intelligence reports suggest that some of the insurgents that have been mounting deadly attacks in Cabo Delgado are foreign nationals, raising suspicion that some of these militants could be masquerading as refugees within Mozambique itself or in any of its six neighbours. 

Some of the refugees have military training and fighting experience, having fought in wars in the Great Lakes countries like Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Burundi, and therefore it is feared that they can come handy as mercenaries for the insurgents.

This has made all refugees in the region suspects and Mozambique itself and some of the countries like Malawi, Tanzania and Zimbabwe have started rolling back on some of the privileges that their refugee communities have long enjoyed, making life particularly difficult for members of these communities, especially in these periods of extended Covid-19 lockdowns. 

Volatile Situation in Cabo Delgado

While Chimwendo could not clarify what threat the refugees posed to Malawi, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office in Malawi at the time said that, according to an official communication it received from the Homeland Security ministry, the decision to head all refugees into Dzaleka camp was taken in the light of “security concerns in order to protect both refugees and host communities following the volatile situation in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado area.”

Elie Umukunzi, an expatriate businessman of Rwandan origin who lives in Malawi on a business permit, told FairPlanet in an interview that the directive had hugely inconvenienced both refugees and those like him with working permits.

“The refugees received an injunction against the relocation decision and the government went to court to fight and vacate that injunction so that the relocation can go ahead,” Umukunzi said in written responses.

“So, currently the judge is to decide whether the injunction stays while the judicial review continues. If the injunction is vacated, it will mean that all refugees and asylum-seekers will have to go in the overcrowded refugee camp, Dzaleka, while in the meantime the legality of the government’s directive to relocate is being analysed,” Umukunzi added. “That would be very bad. So we hope the injunction is maintained so that those who are studying, living or working outside of the camp can continue.”

“Government estimates are that there are about 2,000 families - roughly 10,000 individuals - who live outside the camp out of the total of 50,000 refugees and asylum-seekers in Malawi,”  Umukunzi further stated. “The Dzaleka Refugee Camp has a design capacity of 10,000 individuals so the circumstances are already difficult for those staying there as the healthcare, schooling, housing and sanitary infrastructures are already well overstretched.”

Arbitrary Detentions In Mozambique

Mozambique itself has recently been in the eye of the storm over its treatment of refugees that are suspected of being up to no good. In January 2019, Mozambican security agents stormed Maratane Refugee Camp, in the country’s northeastern Nampula province, and arrested 15 Congolese refugees and asylum seekers and an Ethiopian national. 

The Congolese were flown to the DRC where the Kinshasa government refused to receive them resulting in them taken back to Mozambique where they have since been detained in Pemba, Cabo Delgado province, under conditions that Amnesty International has described as inhuman. 

“It is outrageous that these refugees and asylum seekers remain in detention while being deliberately kept in the dark as to why they have been arrested,” said Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for Southern Africa. “There is no excuse for this kind of treatment. The Mozambican government must end the arbitrary detentions by immediately releasing these individuals or charging them with internationally recognizable offences.”

Again in June this year, concerns were raised over the fate of a Rwandan asylum seeker who was allegedly seized by Mozambican authorities and has not been found amid suggestions that he could have been forcibly returned to Rwanda. 

Mozambique and Rwanda are enjoying close ties with Rwanda recently deploying 1,000 troops to fight off the insurgency in Cabo Delgado.

Fleeing Bad Treatment in Zimbabwe

In Zimbabwe, since late last year, authorities have tightened security on its refugee population, a sizable number of which is Mozambican. Suspicion of asylum-seekers has been growing resulting in many of them having their applications rejected, leaving them in limbo, a situation that has forced some of them to leave the country. 

In early August, more than 100 Congolese nationals were arrested after travelling more than 800 km from the Tongogara Refugee Camp, where they have been told they are no longer wanted, to seek refugee in Botswana.

Leonard Kwete, a  Congolese national  living in Zimbabwe, told the media that the refugees wanted to seek better opportunities outside Zimbabwe, after attempts to formalise their status in the country had been rejected.

“They are refugees who had been in Zimbabwe for some years and their status was rejected. According to what they were saying, they were told in meetings that ‘everyone whose status was rejected has to leave the country because Zimbabwe doesn’t want you anymore and have to prepare or find your own means to leave’,” he said.

“So some of them were telling me, they asked for gate passes and were denied with officials saying, ‘no, the same way you came here, is the same way you can use to leave.”

Kwete said that Zimbabwean officials then started denying the refugees food, medical treatment and other basic needs resulting in them deciding to leave the country.

Kwete corroborated the claims in an interview with FairPlanet, but declined to give any further detailed information.

In December last year, Tongogara Refugee Camp administrator, Johanne Mhlanga, told visiting Parliamentarians that funds were being sought to deport over 800 asylum seekers from more than a dozen countries whom he claimed were now posing a security risk.

Threat To The Region

Most SADC countries are receiving serious threats from the insurgents that they would be attacking any of those countries that join the conflict on Maputo’s side.

Tanzania, another country which shares borders with Mozambique Cabo Delgado province, faces the difficult task of separating between genuine refugees and insurgents, and has been under criticism for sending people fleeing from the troubled area back to Mozambique, thereby exposing genuine refugees to grave danger. 

South Africa, which has long been threatened with terrorist attacks, has been rounding up suspicious refugees and asylum seekers and deporting them. The same is the case with Botswana whose leader, Mokgweetsi Masisi, revealed in April that Gaborone was expecting terrorist attacks to occur any time because of their involvement in Mozambique through SADC.

This heightened suspicion of foreigners in the region is creating fresh problems for refugees and asylum seekers, most of whom fled their home countries for fear of their lives.

Image by: Daniel Mtombosola

Article written by:
CZ Photo
Cyril Zenda
Mozambique Rwanda Zimbabwe
Embed from Getty Images
Methodist Church closing doors to refugees. This heightened suspicion of foreigners in the region is creating fresh problems for refugees and asylum seekers, most of whom fled their home countries for fear of their lives.
© NurPhoto via Getty Images
Call to Action
Provide COVID-19 relief for refugees in South Africa
Support now