There is panic among Rwandan refugees and others as deadline looms, which was issued by Malawi government for all who live outside the camp to go back.
On April 16, the government of Malawi directed that all refugees who have left the camp, must go back within 14 days. After the deadline, all those who would still be outside, risk eviction and even possible expulsion from the country.
Currently, there are about 47,000 refugees registered in Malawi including 6,789 Rwandans, 29,016 Congolese and 10,656 Burundians. All the refugees are housed in Dzaleka refugee camp located about 50km away from the capital Lilongwe.
According to Malawi, over 2,000 of the refugees have left the camp over the years and settled in different parts of the country. The refugees operate businesses, many of them said to be very successful.
With the new government in place, it is responding to growing resentment by Malawians against the refugees. Media reports say the locals claim that the refugees are forcing them out of businesses as they sell their products at lower prices.
The government said in announcing the “return to camp” order that refugess who currently are living among the communities outside the camp pose a danger to national security.
A Burundian refugee, Jean Nduwimana, who asked her real name not be used, left the Dzaleka refugee camp five years ago to start a shop in the Ntcheu district, where she sells handmade goods.
She said the decision followed pressure from her Malawian customers, who would travel long distances to the refugee camp to buy baskets, bags, necklaces and jewelry from her.
She said in interview with VOA, “Almost 100% of my customers were Malawians. So, customers asked me to open a shop in their area because there was no shop like mine in there.”
A 1989 law requires that all refugees must live within a designated camp. The Malawian government says it is simply enforcing the law.
For the case of Rwandan refugees affected by the order, who have been there since 1994, the deadline means they will lose everything they have worked hard for.
The order also brings back memories of the UN cessation clause in 2013 which required Rwandan refugees to either go back home or obtained nationality of the host country. The scheme affected tens of thousands of Rwandan refugees in many countries.
While Malawi is asking refugees to stay inside the confines of a camp, in Uganda, the camp there has turned into a settlement for thousands of Rwandan refugees. They have incorporated into the local community.
Meanwhile, Malawian civil society groups have expressed opposition to the government order. However, their concerns are unlikely to change government policy.