Displaced, uprooted and left alone, many refugees in Namibia’s midst keep hoping for a chance to rebuild their lives.
By Catherine Sasman
“Ratatata, ratatata.” The repeated shouts come from a young man dressed in a white suit, hair plaited down the sides of his head, with wild searching eyes.
His arms are held hip-high as he mocks shooting with an AK-47.
“Me, I’m a military man,” he barks from the middle of a throng of people pushing and shoving for attention.
Baongola Letata, now 30, got caught up in one of Africa’s longest civil wars in the bushes of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). When his colleagues and friends got mowed down in protracted skirmishes across the resource-rich but battle-ridden forests of his country, he decided to flee.
Christina Punda, a girl of 17 with a pronounced limp in her right leg, edges closer to the crowd. Her one-year-old baby dangles on her hip.
“I’m alone with no-one to help me,” she says in a pleading voice. Punda fled from Angola with her parents and a grandmother. She has since lost both parents and grandparent. “Now I only have a big brother who shouts at me.”
Another youngster, a sinewy boy of 16, also from Angola, says he is looking for his sister. Manuel Joao left his country of birth in 2000. His sister, Candida Luisa, left home two years earlier after an uncle chased her out of his house. Someone picked her up in his car and they left for South Africa.
“I heard she used to go to Windhoek to look for us but she never got to the camp. Will you look for her, please?”
Everybody at the Osire refugee camp New Era spoke to wants a favour: – “Please help us. We want to go to America!”; or “I’m an electrical engineer.
You’ll look for a job for me?” – and they all want their names written down as if they are afraid they will be forgotten, that their lives will be erased as if they never happened.
Anxious to speak to outsiders, adults pull closer children who have acquired a semblance of English while at the camp. Otherwise there is an excited chatter in French, Armaric, Portuguese.
Many have languished in the camp for years, hoping for a chance to rebuild their lives or move to another host country. Many are desirous to go back to their countries of origin, but are fearful of what they may find. Others want to leave Namibia where they say they do not feel welcome. And yet others want to remain here where they have found a sense of safety and peace of mind.
These are the people displaced by war, civil strife and chaos. They have been uprooted by persecution, intolerance and violence in their own countries. And now, they are at the mercy of their host country and the assistance of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). For now, they have to eke out a living – some kind of a living – while they are in limbo, hoping for the violence to cease.
There are currently 7 829 displaced people living in Namibia, consisting of 2 298 households. Of these, 79.69% are officially registered as refugees. Asylum seekers – or persons of concern in UNHCR terms – amount to 948.
Those ‘not of concern’ are 568, and those returning to Namibia after having gone back to their countries of origin or elsewhere, are 65. ‘Others of concern’ amount to nine persons. Forty-two percent are children under the age of 18.
The majority of the refugees come from Angola (76.5%). The remaining come from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Burundi, Sudan, Ethiopia, Liberia, Congo-Brazzaville, Rwanda, Kenya and Tanzania.
Since more than 370 000 Angolan refugees worldwide have returned to their country since the peace accord in 2002, and with smaller repatriations elsewhere in Africa, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) noted that the number of people of concern in southern Africa has steadily decreased.
In Namibia, 10 000 Angolan refugees have been repatriated.
However, the region has experienced a sharp rise in mixed flows of refugees and economic migrants.
Worldwide, the picture remains gloomy. The UNHCR has noted a marked increase in refugees for the first time since 2002, largely ascribed to the Iraqi crisis. A total of 1.5 million Iraqis have sought refuge in countries like Syria and Jordan.
Last year, the main group of refugees under the UNHCR’s mandate was Afghans (2.1 million), Iraqis, Sudanese (686 000) and those from the DRC and Burundi (400 000 each).
Not under the UNHCR’s mandate are the 4.3 million displaced Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the Palestinian Occupied Territories.
The UNHCR’s 2006 Global Trends report shows that the number of refugees under the agency’s mandate has risen by 14 percent, amounting to almost 10 million people.
By the end of last year, internally displaced people were estimated at 24.5 million.
These people, said country representative of the UNHCR in Namibia, Joyce Mends-Cole, are the ones that fail to jump borders because of their inability to do so in dire circumstances.
Moreover, the number of stateless people last year was estimated to be as many as 5.8 million.
“Refugees do not leave their homes and villages willingly,” said Mends-Cole.
“They are forced to do so by conflict or persecution. In many cases they are fleeing for their very lives, trying to find safety, protection and a way to meet their most basic needs.” But for the many who have found relative safety at Osire, life remains hard and unsatisfying.
Claudete Mbonimpa fled from Burundi eight years ago with her twin sons, then two years of age, and her husband. After crossing Zambia –
perceived as a safer and faster crossing – she arrived at the Osire camp.
“We are not allowed to have jobs,” she complains, visibly shaken by the difficulties of having to raise a family on small rations received from the UNHCR warehouse.
With the World Food Programme scaling down its support for the camp, monthly rations include the following: 12 kg of maize meal, 3 kg of sugar for six people, a 750 mm bottle of cooking oil per person, 3 litres of paraffin per person, and beans.
Entrepreneurial refugees sell meat and fish in the camp that they buy from neighbouring farms or from Otjiwarongo.
Meat and fish, said Mends-Cole, is only provided to HIV/AIDS patients – there are currently 25 refugees on anti-retroviral drugs provided by the Namibian government – and growing children as a protein supplement.
“How can we survive on this,” asked Mbonimpa. “My children go to school on empty stomachs.”
Osire is a sprawling settlement along a gravel road in the middle of farmlands around the Okahandja-Otjiwarongo area. The flat area is jutted with brick and mud houses, many still under construction. A police station stands at the entrance of the settlement. A community hall was built nearby. There is also a small hospital that employs refugee nurses and a doctor. And then there is a school with classes up to Grade 10.
The “ten or so” small shops provide the refugees with items such as soft drinks, sweets, duvets and trinkets. There are barbershops and “beauty skin care” establishments.
A few small stock roam the area, but these, according to Albert Rajabo, “belong to people working in the administration” of the settlement.
There is no electricity, except for the administration buildings and the police station.
“The paraffin is far too little and when we go to collect firewood from the farms, we get shot at,” said Mbonimpa.
“It is very dangerous out there.”
Albert Rajabo, from the DRC and a member of the Association for the Defense of Refugees (ADR), and his friends some years back got into trouble with the law after demonstrating to improve their status as refugees. One niggling matter was the lack of paraffin. They have been incarcerated twice for “disturbing the public order” and given bail of N$500 each.
“We are not free to move around; it is as if we are in prison here,” said Rajabo.
Refugees and asylum seekers are only allowed to leave the encampment twice a week, on Mondays and Fridays. If they want to leave, they are required to get a permit, which can be arranged for up to one month.
A number of young people New Era spoke to also complained that they have no entertainment, except for the weekly soccer games.
“There is nothing for us to do here. We just get up in the morning, clean our houses and then we just move around the houses,” said one.
The Namibian government has “domesticated” its laws that pertain to refugees, which disallows freedom of movement as afforded to other refugees living in host countries that have ratified the 1951 UN Convention.
According to Mends-Cole, the UNHCR has vigorously advocated for the safeguarding of the rights of refugees and asylum seekers to have freedom of movement, access to refugee documents and access to work and study permits outside the refugee camp. The Namibian government acquiesced to some of the pleas.
Last week, during the World Refugee Day celebrations, the government issued 14 families with identity documents. Others will, it promised, receive their documentation in due time.
“It is a human right to have an identity document,” commented Mends-Cole.
“This will allow people to engage in transactions such as banking.”
She adds: “It is tough to be a refugee, but it is my contention that the refugees in Namibia are being treated well, despite some hiccups.” The UNHCR, she said, is now actively promoting the repatriation of particularly the Angolan population in the camp. The agency is, however, not yet promoting a return to the DRC and Sudan.
The UN body does, however, give a cautionary green light to local integration, mostly requested by Angolans.
“But it is not easy to promote local integration in Africa because countries have very fragile economies with no capacity to absorb big numbers of people,” said Mends-Cole.
In the meantime, the UNHCR in tandem with the Ministry of Agriculture is actively pursuing the establishment of vegetable gardens for the camp. The Ministry of Education and other ministries are also anticipated to play a greater role at the camp as the UNHCR is slowly phasing down its presence in the country. And the refugees are clamouring for jobs and a better life.
“Some companies should come to Osire to employ us. If not, we want the UNHCR to find us somewhere else where we can feel free and more comfortable,” said a young Nevill Kabamba.