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A woman watches children playing at Dzaleka Refugee Camp in Dowa, Malawi.  © 2019 Angela Jimu/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

(Johannesburg) – The Malawi government has detained and forcibly relocated refugees and asylum seekers across the country without regard for their basic human rights, Human Rights Watch said today. Malawian authorities should promptly reverse this action and respect everyone’s rights to freedom of movement, education, and a basic standard of living.

On May 26, 2023, Malawi’s homeland security ministry stated that it had detained 902 refugees and asylum seekers since May 17. The police, aided by the military, arrested men, women, and children living in Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital, and other districts, shut down their businesses, temporarily detained them in prisons, and left them empty-handed at Dzaleka refugee camp, about 40 kilometers from Lilongwe. Some of those arrested reported beatings and destruction or theft of their property.

“Malawi’s forcible transfers of refugees and asylum seekers to Dzaleka camp is a misguided and disproportionate response to alleged economic and security concerns, fueled by government scapegoating,” said Idriss Ali Nassah, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Not only are the authorities committing abuses during arrests and detaining children, summarily removing them from their homes amounts to unlawful forced evictions.”

The roundups of refugees and asylum seekers follow a March 27 government directive to enforce its so-called encampment policy. The government ordered all refugees and asylum seekers living in urban and rural areas to voluntarily return to the Dzaleka refugee camp by April 15 or face enforced relocation. Reports that children have been among those caught up in the sweeps and forcibly taken to Maula Central Prison, a maximum-security prison in Lilongwe, are of grave concern, Human Rights Watch said. Children should not be detained for immigration reasons, and should never be held in adult prisons, under international human rights standards.

Many of the children had never been in the refugee camp. Overcrowded classes and poor conditions in the camp may cause them long-term harm, Human Rights Watch said.

The Malawi Human Rights Commission told Human Rights Watch that it had interviewed about 20 refugees and asylum seekers at Maula prison and Dzaleka refugee camp who alleged that they were assaulted during the raids and that their money was taken from them.

A 27-year-old asylum seeker from the Democratic Republic of Congo, who arrived in Malawi in 2019, told Human Rights Watch that about 20 armed police officers broke down the door to his house at 3 a.m. on May 18. “They held me down and used a baton to beat me on the back,” he said. “And I have injuries as a result.”

He said he was taken to Maula prison and then transferred to Dzaleka camp, where conditions were dire, with hundreds of people stranded without adequate shelter, food, or clothing. “There are children who were picked up on their way home from school,” he said. “There are women with newborn babies who have nowhere to sleep. It seems the authorities dumped us here without a plan as to what to do with us once we got to this camp.”

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) reported that as of May, Malawi hosted over 50,600 refugees and asylum seekers, with over 32,000 from Congo, nearly 11,000 from Burundi, and over 6,000 from Rwanda. Most are in the refugee camp, intended to accommodate up to 12,000 people. UNHCR has said that the overcrowded camp was unable to meet the food, health, water, shelter, and sanitation needs of its existing population.

An estimated 8,000 refugees have lived in Malawi’s rural and urban areas for a considerable time. In general, Malawi does not allow refugees to seek employment or educational opportunities outside the camp, and most refugees are dependent on humanitarian aid. However, some, including those with professional degrees, received permits to pursue employment and other opportunities outside the camp.

A leader of the Burundian refugee community told the media that an agreement with the government had allowed them to start and run small businesses in rural and urban communities “so that they do not rely on handouts” in Dzaleka refugee camp.

In April 2021, the homeland security ministry ordered refugees and asylum seekers living outside Dzaleka to return to the camp, claiming they posed national security risks. Malawi’s Supreme Court issued an injunction against the order, but the High Court of Blantyre vacated the injunction in August 2022. The Homeland Security Ministry set a deadline of November 30, 2022 for refugees and asylum seekers living in rural areas to return to Dzaleka camp, and February 2023 for those in urban areas. Its March directive then set a new April deadline.

In a May 21 statement, Malawi’s parliament said that refugees living and doing business outside designated refugee camps without a permit was inconsistent with domestic law and “a recipe for chaos,” which “rendered our laws on refugees almost useless.”

Government officials have also accused refugees of creating economic problems for Malawians. Ken Zikhale Ng’oma, the homeland security minister, said that Malawi cannot host refugees “doing business at the expense of Malawians.” He said that those who defy the order to relocate would be picked up by security agents and dumped “at the nearest border post.”

The UN Refugee Agency said that Malawi’s government should rescind its relocation decision, warning that “existing structures in Dzaleka refugee camp are already stretched to the limit and cannot accommodate more refugees in a dignified manner.” The agency cautioned that relocations would “have dire consequences on the provision of critical basic services … as well as protection activities.”

The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, both of which Malawi ratified, prohibit forced evictions, defined as the permanent or temporary removal of individuals, families, or communities against their will from their homes or land, without access to appropriate forms of legal or other protection. Prior to carrying out lawful evictions, governments should explore all feasible alternatives in consultation with affected people, while “avoiding, or at least minimizing, the need to use force.”

Malawi is party to both the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and the 1969 African (OAU) refugee conventions. Article 26 of the 1951 Convention recognizes the right of freedom of movement and choice of residence for refugees lawfully within a country, while article 31(2) prohibits restrictions on the freedom of movement of asylum seekers unless such restrictions are deemed “necessary.” However, Malawi entered reservations when it ratified the 1951 Convention, stating that it considered certain provisions “as recommendations only and not legally binding,” including refugees’ rights to freedom of movement, employment, property, and public education.

Malawi’s Refugee Act of 1989 provides for procedures to determine refugee status but does not address the rights of refugees. Malawi should lift its reservations to the 1951 Refugee Convention, which are incompatible with international human rights and refugee law standards, and modify its national refugee law accordingly to end its encampment policy, Human Rights Watch said.

In 2018, Malawi endorsed the Global Compact on Refugees at the UN General Assembly, accepting to roll out the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework. These instruments demonstrated a commitment to a common approach to improve the worldwide response to the needs of refugees. The inclusion and integration of refugees into host communities is a key concept at the heart of the global compact and the framework, which recognize that refugees can become self-reliant if permitted to access education and labor markets, thereby contributing to the development of host communities and local economies. But Malawian officials have made statements taking the opposite position in supporting the use of the camps.

The 2016 New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, which Malawi supported, recognizes that refugee camps “should be the exception” as a temporary measure in cases of emergency, and that refugees should be allowed to live among host communities, which can reduce the risk of protracted stays and lessen refugees’ dependence on humanitarian aid.

Malawi has already committed to modifying its refugee policies. It made pledges during the 2019 Global Refugee Forum related to inclusion of refugees in the national development agenda and “legal and policy” reform toward lifting some of its reservations to the 1951 Refugee Convention, including on freedom of movement and access to public schools and employment.

“Forced relocations can be expected to harm refugees’ and asylum seekers’ rights to health, education, and an adequate standard of living,” Nassah said. “The Malawian government should immediately halt the forced relocations, which are contrary to its international human rights commitments.”

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