By Anna Shilongo
Times have changed for the better for refugees at Osire. Osire is now a peaceful place, unlike in the past when refugees complained about food rations and their general wellbeing.
The sprawling settlement along a gravel road in the middle of farmlands around the Okahandja-Otjiwarongo area is home to close to 8 000 African refugees.
The camp is built with brick and mud houses with many still under construction.
The refugees are provided with a police station that stands at the entrance of the settlement, a community hall and clinic that employs refugee nurses and doctors.
Refugees need not worry about their children’s school fees, uniforms and books as these are provided for at the centre. There are two pre-primary, and a primary school with classes up to Grade 10.
Education is also free, except for Grade 11 and 12 schooling outside the camp.
The refugees are provided with basic needs such as groceries, cosmetics, health facilities and shelter.
In the past, refugees were encouraged not only to depend on donor assistance but also to come up with income generating projects to improve their living conditions.
As a result, the refugees are now engaged in income generating projects such as gardening, restaurants, running cuca-shops and retail projects.
Some refugees run their own small shops, where they sell items such as soft drinks, sweets, duvets and trinkets.
There are also barbershops, salons, an open market and “beauty and skin care” establishments.
The camp has no electricity, except for the administration buildings and the police station so camp staff provide the refugees with paraffin.
Refugees and asylum seekers are only allowed to leave the encampment twice a week, on Mondays and Fridays and if they want to leave, they are required to get a permit, allowing them to remain outside the camp for up to one month.
Isabel Sompa migrated from her country of origin seven years ago. She has since then been a refugee at Osire camp.
Sompa is a widow. She is also the vice president of the refugee camp. She is also a co-coordinator for the Women’s Centre, where women in the camp meet and discuss issues of common interest.
A refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sompa feels refugees are not fully welcomed by members of the public.
“Even though we are forced out of our countries of origin by circumstances beyond our control for fear of persecution on the grounds of religious and political beliefs, we are human beings just like any others,” Sompa said.
She says there is no need to discriminate against refugees, as they are not sick people or a danger to anyone. Osire has been her home for the past seven years and Sompa does not know where her family is.
Sitting on a plastic chair with a smile on her face, she is proud to live at Osire Camp where she also runs a successful business, with three other women.
Another successful refugee is Patrick Mukanya who is the Agro -forestry supervisor. Mukanya is in charge of the garden, which produces various vegetables such as cabbages, carrots, spinach, maize, lemons, mulberries, onions, beetroots, tomatoes and okra.
“We also teach basic skills on how to plant trees and gardening,” said the proud Mukanya, with a smile on his face.
He said the garden employees five permanent workers and eight volunteers.
“The income we generate is shared among the group which help us make small purchases. We also assist elderly women, children, minors and physically challenged people with special needs,” he said. Mukanya called on the public to support their products.
He thanked the UNHCR and other organisations for supporting empowerment projects that would make refugees self-reliant.
While some of the refugees want to go home, they are fearful of persecution in their countries of origin.
Others want to leave Namibia because 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.
Refugees are displaced by war and civil strife. They have been uprooted by persecution, intolerance and violence in their own countries. And now, they reside in the host country Namibia with assistance from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).
They have to eke out a living – some kind of a living – while they are in limbo, hoping for the violence at home to cease.
There are currently 8 000 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 – number 948.
Those ‘not of concern’ are 568, and those returning to Namibia after having gone back to their countries of origin or elsewhere, number 65. There are nine persons ‘of concern’ . Forty-two percent are children under the age of 18.
The majority of the refugees come from Angola (76.5%). The remaining comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Burundi, Sudan, Liberia, Congo-Brazzaville, Rwanda, Kenya and Tanzania.
The Southern African region has experienced a sharp rise in the influx of refugees and economic migrants.
Refugees do not leave their countries willingly; they are forced to do so by conflict and in many cases they are fleeing for their lives, trying to find safety, protection and a way to meet their most basic needs.
The refugees are provided with a health clinic at the camp, which also serves people on nearby farms. However HIV/Aids is not a matter of concern at Osire, according to the medical officer at the camp, Dr.Mpelo Apama,
There is a very low HIV/Aids prevalence. Apama said awareness campaigns are carried out on a weekly basis.
“The awareness campaigns are very educational and sensitise refugees to go for voluntary testing as well as advise them on how to protect and guard them from contracting the disease. Condoms are also distributed all over the camp,” he said.
In the meantime, video shows are broadcast on a daily basis at the camp, while information materials are printed in foreign languages, such as Swahili, French, Portuguese and English.
“We have identified 30 distribution points for condoms in the camp, because we know some people are shy, they wouldn’t want to come and ask for condoms at the clinic,” said the medical doctor.
He said the hospital only has three HIV/Aids patients and six TB patients that are on treatment.”
The only concern that the medical officer raised is teenage pregnancy at the camp.
He said the rate of teenage pregnancy is worrisome as under-age children were falling pregnant. The youngest being 13 years of age.
“Many of these children are school going children and they are impregnated by their fellow schoolmates,” said the officer.
Many of these children are apparently orphans or they separated from their parents.
“Elders do come for family planning but you will hardly find a young person coming for family planning or even just general information on pregnancy,” he said.
Crime is also not a concern. Only minor cases are reported such as domestic violence and assaults or cases where refugees steal firewood from nearby farms, said the camp administrator Paulus Haikali.
Haikali said the camp was established in 1992 with 300 refugees. In 1998 –
1999, the camp catered for about 26 000 refugees of which some were successfully repatriated back to their home countries. Others were integrated while some disappeared.