By Masimba Tafirenyika
Until a ceasefire agreement between the Mozambican government and the rebel MNR (Mozambique National Resistance) is signed during the Rome peace talks and permanent peace established, the current flow of refugees from Mozambique into neighbouring countries is bound to continue unabated, delegates to a recent refugee’s conference in Malawi were told.

For four days 150 delegates from 30 international organisations, NGOs and the United Nations system reviewed and assessed the impact of Mozambican refugees on the Malawian environment, social and economic infrastructure held from 8-12 June in Blantyre.

The conference was sponsored by York University Centre for Refugees Studies and the Malawi government on the “First Country of Asylum and Development Aid in Malawi”.

The war in Mozambique has forced more than 1.5 million people to flee for safety to neighbouring countries with Malawi alone hosting about a million. According to papers presented at the conference, the impact of refugees has led to massive destruction of Malawi’s environment and also put a severe strain on the economy and infrastructure.

As if this was not enough, the current drought ravaging the region has also badly hit this small southern African country of 8.5 million people. Fifty percent of its population is seriously affected, making Malawi the largest concentration of drought victims per capital in the region.

The presence of many Malawian government officials at the conference precluded detailed discussion of sensitive issues such as basic human rights for refugees and the question of war and peace in Mozambique. Malawi has for many years provided the MNR with logistical support.

One delegate remarked that “you cannot expect respect for the rights of refugees from a government that does not even respect its own nationals.”

The meeting was held shortly after country-wide riots by Malawians demanding the release of Chakufwa Chihana, the secretary general of the Southern African Trade Union Co-ordinating Council. Chihana, who is facing charges of sedition, was detained when he returned home from a conference in Lusaka, Zambia, to challenge the government on the need for democratic reforms.

For 28 years Malawians have been denied basic human rights under the autocratic regime of President Hastings Kamuzu Banda, who declared himself life president seven years after his country gained independence from Britain in 1964.

The conference started with a trip to one of the largest refugee camps in Africa, Nyamithuthu Camp. Although refugees started trickling into Malawi as early as 1986, it was not until 1988 that Nyamithuthu was opened.

Originally set up for 50,000 refugees, today the camp is home to more than 290,000 people in a district with a Malawian population of 240,000. This has earned it the dubious distinction of being “the third largest ‘city’ in Malawi where no Malawian Jives.”

The camp is situated in Nsanje district in the southern part of Malawi about 15 km from the border with Mozambique.
The impact on the area surrounding Nyamithuthu has been enormous. The district formerly had thick forests which have now been cleared for firewood and housing for refugees. The main road to the camp from Blantyre has been badly damaged by heavy trucks bringing in relief food.

Health facilities in the district are overstretched since the camp has only one small clinic operating with a skeleton staff. There are only two schools within the camp, each with a total enrolment of 6,000 pupils. The lack of qualified teachers has pushed the teacher-pupil ration to 90: 1.

Although the camp has now been “officially’ closed to, new arrivals, refugees still arrive at the rate of 35 a day. They are immediately transferred to other smaller camps scattered along the border with Mozambique.

More than 300 000 refugees have voluntarily returned to Mozambique, most of them without the assistance of organizations such as the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). Delegates recognized that there cannot be any meaningful voluntary repatriation before the establishment of permanent peace in Mozambique.

A request for people to voluntarily register for repatriation received a positive response from only 131 refugees. Most refused voluntary return because of insecurity, preferring to stay in the camp.

Flora MacDonald, former Canadian External Affairs Minister and patron of the Centre for Refugee Studies, called for a cessation of hostilities within Mozambique in her keynote address. She accused the MNR of stalling the peace talks as the organization “feels it has little to gain in moving from a military to a political instrument when it is not yet ready to do so – when it lacks experience and support in the political field.”

According to MacDonald, “the lethargic response that the ‘have’ countries of the world who are themselves suffering from ‘compassion fatigue’ and ‘refugee fatigue’ is a downright disgrace and totally unacceptable” since that attitude is “the worst possible insult to people whose suffering is so great that it defies description.”

After listening with anguish, growing anger and alarm to some of the most barbarous and inhuman atrocities being committed by MNR described by delegates from Mozambique, the conference passed a resolution which was immediately sent to Rome – the venue of the peace talks – the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) and the UN expressing its solidarity with the suffering people of Mozambique. The recommendation was signed by most delegates, but not by the Malawian officials.

The resolution also recommended that zones of security guaranteed by neutral parties such as the UN or OAU, be established immediately inside Mozambique for the safe return of refugees and dislocated people in order that the work of distributing food, clearing land-mines and assisting people to return to their place of origin, be implemented.

At the end of the conference, delegates recommended, among other things, that the donor community should consider making available more development and humanitarian assistance to redress the negative impact of hosting refugees in Malawi and other host countries in southern Africa. (SARDC)

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