International Refugee Day is observed on June 20. Namibia’s Commissioner
for Refugees, Nkrumah Mushelenga talks to New Era about his concerns
over the recent xenophobic attacks plaguing the region.
By Catherine Sasman
WHAT is the theme for this year’s Refugee Day?
The theme is the protection of refugees, as it was decided in Geneva. But I, as the Commissioner of Refugees in Namibia, have decided to add a Namibian version, which is protection towards a world without refugees.
I have attended many meetings and workshops discussing the issue of refugees, but there has never been an indication how the leaders of this world are trying to end the phenomenon of refugees.
My dream is to see a world where there are no refugees, where people only move for premeditated purposes, such as tourists, labour migrants, for business or study.
The definition of a refugee is someone who finds him- or herself in a country that is not his or her place of birth due to circumstances created by another human being, leading to fear of persecution.
Why are we not focusing on the causes of the incidence of refugees, on the push and pull factors to not only address the symptoms of the phenomenon of refugees, and a world without refugees? Everyone should be free; we were all born free.
What would you say is the current status of xenophobia in Namibia, the region and beyond?
When I heard that South African nationals are beating and killing non-South Africans, and particularly Africans, I got worried. I asked myself whereto from here? Of course, I also look at what causes xenophobia.
The reality is that there is a wind of change across – not only Africa – but the world, where people have the desire to move, work, learn and settle wherever they want to irrespective of where they were born.
Why should people become xenophobic at this point in time when the world is facing new challenges?
Xenophobia does not match with reality. In Africa we are talking about African unity. Our leaders are talking about regionalism, economic integration, and the free movement of people and goods.
This automatically means the falling away of visas and a number of other immigration requirements.
I therefore think xenophobia is a challenge to our leaders, rather than a problem. It is a challenge that governments, and in particular people managing migration movements need to discuss jointly, and focus on the reorientation of members of the community.
It needs a mind change and new operational strategies. This means that leaders responsible for migration should rather focus on educating our communities within the region and beyond to the importance of having people moving from one country to the next.
A refugee is a desperate person. On the other hand, a person moving with a premeditated plan of action will have a positive impact, be that in terms of work, economic development or cultural enrichment.
We should also learn from history. In Africa, the majority of people dream to be in the US. Why? Because the US has developed its economy – not by indigenous people, but by migrants.
South Africa is the economic power on the continent, and in particular, in southern Africa. But who has created that economic power? It was the migrants from Mozambique, Zambia, Malawi, and indeed from Namibia and other parts of Africa.
But of course, we also need to look at what individual States have achieved and learn from it.
As far as xenophobia in Namibia is concerned, yes, there are minor symptoms of it here and there. But I think because of the enthusiasm our leaders have shown – probably because of the experiences they have gone through – the level of xenophobia in Namibia is manageable.
But what I can say as the manager of refugee matters in this country is that the country needs to do more in terms of information dissemination to articulate the importance of refugees.
A typical example would be the doctors, nurses, and road and mining engineers we have in this country. We should maximise the expertise of these people rather than turning our backs on them and looking at the West to provide us with skills we can acquire in the region.
When you are talking about the professionals you have just mentioned, are you referring to refugees per se, or are you talking about business people that have come to Namibia to work here?
I am talking about refugees who have come here as refugees, and because of their skills and initiatives are self-reliant and independent.
This is a typical example that we need to take into consideration when the wind of xenophobia is blowing nearby. We should challenge this phenomenon with the reality on the ground.
What would you say is the main cause of xenophobia in South Africa, and why do we see these attacks on foreigners now?
One factor is the absence of equitable sharing of God-given economic resources, particularly natural resources. This is what causes xenophobia not only in South Africa or in Africa, but also throughout the world.
The other thing causing xenophobia is the free market economic system. While it has its advantages, there are disadvantages to it, which our leaders sometimes do not critically consider.
It is said that a free market economy gives opportunities to everyone – that it is levelling the playing field. However, there are a number of factors that have to be in place before you can enjoy the fruits of a free market economy, such as access to banking facilities.
If you do not have that, how will you be able to establish a sound economic system? If governments do not have the authority to regulate the price of commodities – particularly food – how do you expect people to enjoy the fruits that should keep them alive?
The constitution, for example, talks of the right to life, but if people do not have access to food, the concept of a free market economy needs to be reviewed.
Another aspect is the increasing unemployment rate. That is what is happening in South Africa. The unemployment rate there is high.
Some refugees or illegal immigrants are living in luxury in South Africa because they are employed or are self-employed because some went there with money because they have access to banking facilities in their own countries.
In South Africa and Namibia the majority of the people do not have access to banking facilities.
If we want to implement concepts such as African unity, regionalism and economic integration, we should not be xenophobic. The danger is not the foreigner, but it is a question of accessibility to financial institutions.
People in their own countries should also familiarise themselves with the laws of their countries to know how you are protected by the law.
What is the status of refugees in Namibia?
Refugees here are protected just as Namibians are. They enjoy fundamental freedoms put out in the Namibian Constitution.
They can apply for work or study permits. They can study up to Grade 10 at Osire, or at any other institution in the country. They are given jobs in Government or the private sector. They can start their own initiatives and show their creativity by establishing their own businesses.
This shows the level at which Namibia is ready to positively deal with asylum seekers and refugees, while honouring its international commitments provided for in the 1951 Geneva Convention, the 1967 protocol and the 1969 OAU Convention.
Refugees in the Osire resettlement camp have kindergartens, and access to medical facilities there. If they have an aggressive illness, they can go elsewhere for treatment. There is a warehouse where they get food. They also have plots to cultivate additional food if they so wish.
Is it true that many refugees under attack in South Africa do not return to their countries of origin, but in fact spill over into neighbouring countries such as Namibia? Do you know how many refugees have fled to Namibia since the xenophobic violence in South Africa?
We have received less than 20, with the majority from the Democratic Republic of Congo. They came in and expressed their desire to seek refugee status in Namibia. We agreed to take them in and they are now at the Osire refugee settlement.
We look forward to put the machinery in place to register them, and if they decide to remain here, to allow them to be interviewed and go through the process of the Namibian Status Determination Committee.
They will then be recommended, and if it is found that they qualify, they will be granted with refugee status. They will be treated just like any other refugee in this country.
The Founding Father, Dr Sam Nujoma, made an inspiring statement when he said we should learn from history. Namibians have been in exile during the difficult years of this country. We have received financial, political, material and military assistance to ensure that independence here is realised.
Today we are enjoying peace, tranquility and stability. Many in the SADC region have died because of the Namibian and South African presence in their countries. It is therefore high time for us to reciprocate.
It is also African culture. I can assure you that xenophobia is winding down. We are prepared to accept the winds of change brought by our leaders when they talk of increased unity. Whether we like it or not, we should accept it. There is no reverse; we are going to unite.
Does the Ministry of Home Affairs have any idea how many Namibians are in South Africa, or live in the region?
The constitution talks about freedom of movement. People are not obliged to report that they are moving elsewhere.
But we have about 1?