The resurgence of fighting in Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo has led to a sharp increase in the number of refugees and displaced people in southern Africa presenting more and new challenges to the institution of asylum and refugee protection.
The current inflow of refugees in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) has also strained the meagre resources available and has caused serious environmental degradation in host countries. Most host countries are finding it difficult to cater for the refugees.
Commissioner of Disaster Preparedness, Relief and Rehabilitation in Malawi, Lucius Chikuni, says the institution of asylum and refugees protection face a daunting challenge more than ever before, because while states believe in humanitarian aspects of refugee's protection, they are also faced with "a host of problems".
"Most of these are economic, over-population, which makes any growth rate in gross domestic product - even up to 6 percent per annum - insignificant as that growth simply gets swallowed up by the social service demands on governments," said Chikuni at a United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) symposium in South Africa recently.
The symposium, titled Challenges to the Institution of Asylum and Refugee protection in Southern Africa: Reconciling State Interests with International Asylum Obligations, explored the acute crisis underlying international refugee policy and practice as the 20th century draws to an end.
With over six million refugees, the African continent has the largest number of refugees in the world. The majority has been displaced from central Africa and the Great Lakes region where political instability has been a common feature for decades. Unfortunately, the repercussions spill over to the relatively stable region of southern Africa, burdening host countries already reeling under economic depression.
The UN humanitarian coordinator and World Food Programme (WFP) representative in Angola, Francesco Strippoli, recently said that he was "extremely pessimistic" about the plight of huge numbers of people being displaced by increased fighting. Since April last year, over 600,000 people in Angola have been displaced and the number is bound to increase as war rages on.
"I am extremely pessimistic because the country continues to be affected by fighting and new displacements," Strippoli said. "On the other hand, we are not only concerned about people who have been displaced, but by the situation of the general population at large in cities under siege."
WFP estimates on Angola indicate that there are 70,000 refugees in Malanje; 80,000 in Huambo; and 55,000 in Cuito. A recent survey in Malanje indicated that 10 percent of the local population is suffering from malnutrition. Most of the refugees fled with few possessions, and the situation is deteriorating rapidly.
While other people have fled into towns where security is better, others have sought refuge in countries such as Namibia, Malawi and Zambia. Zambia has registered 160,000 refugees in camps to make it easier for government to provide them with the necessary protection.
Most refugees are from Angola, with over two-thirds in the western and northwestern regions, in addition to the 40,000 at the Meheba refugee camp, in the northwest. There are also several hundreds refugees from Burundi, the DR Congo and Rwanda.
Relations between Angola and Zambia, both members of the SADC family bloc, are not at their best. Angola has accused Zambia of supporting the rebel movement, Unita, which is fighting to oust the government of President Jose Edwardo dos Santos. Zambia has denied the charges. But the animosity could still compromise the security and well being of the refugees.
Reports say the number of Congolese refugees in Tanzania continue to increase as fighting rages on in the vast central African country. UNHCR says there are about 53,000 refugees in western Tanzania. As refugees continue to stream in, Tanzania, reeling from economic hardships and a crippling external debt, might find it difficult to cater for the refugees without external assistance.
Malawi, one of the poorest countries in the region, hosts about 1, 000 refugees and asylum seekers at Dzaleka Camp near Lilongwe. These include people from Somalia, Rwanda, Burundi and DR Congo. Some use the camp as a transit point to other southern African countries, showing the complexity of the flow of refugees. Malawi was host to 1.1 million refugees during the Mozambican civil war.
Over 2 500 Namibians have crossed into neighbouring Botswana, most of them from the Caprivi Strip, following a separatist revolt in the swampy area. The two countries have been at loggerheads over the Sedudu/Kasikile islands. The matter has since referred to the International Court of Justice for adjudication.
Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe are also host to a number of refugees, mainly from Angola, DR Congo and the Great Lakes region.
The situation in the Great Lakes region epitomises the dramatic consequences of the incapacity, reluctance or unwillingness of the international community to address a complex and immense refugee crisis that has spilled to other countries in southern Africa.
For instance, says Nicholas Bwakira, UNHCR Director of Operations, southern Africa region, the UNHCR did not have "the mandate to guarantee the humanitarian nature of refugee status and enforce the civilian character of refugee settings."
"The presence of armed elements among the refugee community, pursuing their own political agenda with the direct and indirect support of the host government, was an insurmountable challenge," said Bwakira.
Bwakira added that the militarization of camps and other breaches of refugee law occurred and the very foundations of international protection regime were challenged, through mass killings and rejection at the boarders.
Political commentators say it was easier for governments and citizens of host countries to accept the responsibility to give asylum to refugees during the struggle for independence and apartheid than during times of internal conflict. They argue that during independence struggles, nations felt strong solidarity toward each other and giving asylum was perceived as a goal in the fight against a common enemy.
For instance, during the apartheid era, South African asylum-seekers were readily accepted in most countries in the region while Zimbabweans were given refugee in countries like Mozambique, Tanzania and Zambia during the liberation struggle.
But that scenario has since changed with the attainment of independence in all southern African countries, making it necessary to redefine and re-evaluate refugee protection.
Phyllis Johnson, the Executive Director of the Southern African Research and Documentation Centre (SARDC) said the questions of asylum and refugee protection no longer have simple answers and new realities have emerged that require re-evaluation and coping mechanisms, both in terms of the asylum seeker and recipient state.
"The definition of "refugee protection" and "asylum obligations" need to be revisited in this context. And it has become imperative that serious policy action to remove or reduce the root causes must be mobilised by regional and international communities," said Johnson at the UNHCR symposium in South Africa.
Alongside restrictiveness on the part of governments, refugees and asylum-seekers are faced with increasing xenophobic tendencies in the host populations. The problem is particularly acute where refugee issues are not clearly distinguished from those relating to illegal immigrants.
In most countries, illegal immigrants are blamed for many national social ills, ranging from crime, increasing unemployment and spreading diseases. South Africa is host to thousands of illegal immigrants from Botswana, Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
As a result, refugees in South Africa suffer the same prejudice and harassment as illegal immigrants, and a number have been murdered. "I regret to say in South Africa alone, over ten refugees have been killed in 1998," said Bwakira.
In all war situations, women and children are the worst victims because of their vulnerability. In recognition of this fact, the UNHCR has started work on a special project to reduce sexual violence against women and girls in refugee camps. The project targets refugees in camps in Tanzania, Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, and seeks to strengthen legal structures as well as providing counselling for victims.
Analysts say regardless of socio-economic limitations and national preferences, states should respect human rights and observe existing binding instruments namely the UN Convention on Refugees, OAU Convention on Refugees, International Humanitarian law, African Charter on Human and People's Rights and also the UN Conventions on mines.
"The International community must live up to the expectations of the people who wrote the international law on refugees and rectify it. The international community must be able to protect the refugees, provide basic needs and accord them rights as humans," said Bishop Kleopas Dumeni of the ELCIN in Namibia. (SARDC)