… As delays, Osire mistreatment taint Namibia’s global image
By Volodymyr Lakomov
NAMIBIA, which has often been described as “a child of international solidarity”, for which the United Nations acted as a midwife, is in danger of being seen as uncaring, following the massive influx of 3 700 refugees and 300 asylum-seekers, who originate from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) Burundi, Rwanda, Sudan, Kenya, Somalia, Zimbabwe and Uganda.
They are currently being housed at the Osire settlement, situated 200km north of Windhoek, next to the main road from Gobabis to Otjiwarongo.
An asylum-seeker is a person who has sought protection as a refugee, but whose claim for refugee status has not yet been assessed.
A refugee has three options, once their status is accepted – voluntary repatriation, resettlement or transfer to another country.
Allegations have now emerged that Namibia, which took over the refugee settlement from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in 2015, has failed to assign enough Home Affairs and Immigration officials to screen and process the refugees, in order to either reintegrate them into Namibia or repatriate them back to their home countries.
Some refugees have allegedly been stuck at Osire for three to four years.
There have also been complaints of deteriorating settlement conditions, including water and sanitation shortages, as well as a lack of access to tertiary education.
DRC refugee Pope Kalala, 29, who is married with two children, claimed severe mistreatment at Osire.
“Our lives are in jeopardy, because we are not considered human beings,” he said.
Kalala says that out of 117 asylum-seekers that arrived to Namibia, only eight were granted refugee status.
As a result, their families were torn apart. “We are treated like dogs. They are basically telling us to go back to die.”
Kalala said that between 2013 and 2015 Namibian officials at the Osire settlement repeatedly arrested his parents. Despite having court clearance due to their refugee status, his mother was deported, while his father disappeared after going to a hospital in Otjiwarongo.
His two sisters and a brother have disappeared as well, and were last heard of when they were transported to nearby farms, where they apparently work as labourers.
“I don’t want to continue living this way as refugees, we need reasonable solutions, not threats,” lamented Kalala.
Over the past two years, many of Namibia’s neighbouring countries have been experiencing armed conflicts.
Burundi has since 2015 experienced constant ethnic-driven purges and asylum-seekers from that country has nearly doubled.
Meanwhile, in the DRC violence has been spiralling out of control, after an announcement that presidential elections would be delayed, leaving President Joseph Kabila in charge.
When Namibia gained independence, it signed the 1951 Convention on Refugees, and the African Union’s Protocol in 1967, in the process making itself available as a transition point for incoming asylum-seekers.
The legal framework, which incorporates many of the country’s ministries, employs mechanisms that allow a careful and effective way of solving complex refugee and asylum-seeker situations.
“A husband may arrive first to Namibia, while his wife or children will arrive later,” former Refugee Commissioner Nkrumah Mushelenga explained this week.
“And they will be given a derivative status, after they are verified to be the husband’s family.”
The technical process starts with asylum-seekers arriving at any location in Namibia. Most of them arrive from Zambia and Botswana, and go to the Katima Mulilo transit camp.
Under the official protocol, they must declare themselves to the closest police station or immigration centre, in order for the government to transport them to the Osire settlement.
After arriving, the asylum-seekers must undergo a screening process, during which they are interviewed. Based on clarity of their story, they are either given entry to Namibia or turned away.
“If the refugees say they are from Katanga in Congo, whereby in Katanga there are no conflicts, then their story is not clear,” explained Kirsti Mukwiilongo, who is a former community development officer, and field associate on protection with the UNHCR at Osire.
“But if they say they are from Kinshasa or North Kivu, where there are conflicts, then the government will look into it.”
If asylum-seekers are denied refugee status, then they have an opportunity to appeal within 90 days.
Mushelenga said there are certain pull factors that influence the dynamics of refugee movement throughout the world.
In Namibia, the pull factors are the vivid and stable lifestyle, and the country’s successful history of handling refugees.
One Rwandan man, who had been persecuted for marrying a woman from rival tribe, chose to escape and bring his family to Namibia, where he found a stable refuge, Mukwiilongo said.
Prior to its withdrawal from Namibia in June 2015, the UNHCR served as a custodian for handling refugees.
Its rationale was that after years of building capacity, the Namibian government had finally been ready to take over the Osire settlement.
An international non-governmental organisation called African Humanitarian Action had previously provided humanitarian services, such as shelter, food and non-food items, as well as water sanitation to the settlement, but its contract had expired last month.
“Health, education and the safety and security of refugees has been, and still is, a government responsibility,” said Mukwiilongo.
“There’s a hospital, as well as primary and secondary schools, with about 2 200 students.”
Mukwiilongo admitted that there was a problem with the processing of asylum-seeker applications, because of a lack of manpower. Three months is the normal waiting time, but sometimes it may take up to two years to process an asylum-seeker.
“They will still be interviewed,” Kirsti assures.
“It will take a bit longer, but they still have access to the settlement’s services.”
Another difficulty faced by refugee students is on education sponsorship. UNHCR provided the passing Grade 12 refugee students with funds to continue to their tertiary studies. The education programme, known as the Albert Einstein German Academic Refugee Initiative Fund (DAFI), was funded by the German government through the UNHCR,
“This has stopped, after the UNHCR withdrew. They don’t have the financial means to enter the university, since refugee parents don’t have money for it.”
Despite such problems and complaints, both Mushelenga and Mukwiilongo are adamant that Namibia will fulfil its responsibilities.
“The majority of the children, who are here, will be African leaders tomorrow. It is our duty as Africans to help them,” said Mushelenga.
Confidente. Lifting the Lid. Copyright © 2015