Cover Image
close this bookThe Courier N 150 - March - April 1995 - Dossier: Refugees - Country Reports: The Bahamas, Guyana (EC Courier, 1995, 104 p.)
close this folderDossier
View the documentRefugees and displaced people
View the documentRefugee women
View the documentDevelopment-induced displacement
View the documentFleeing environmental devastation in the Sahel
View the documentIs there a refugee-specific education?
View the documentRefugee participation
View the documentRefugee assistance: a common approach
View the documentDefending humanitarianism at the end of the 20th century
View the documentMozambican refugees and their brothers' keepers
View the documentThe European Union's asylum policy: control, prevention, integration
View the documentAsylum procedures in the KU: towards a lowest common denominator
View the documentA European response to the global refugee crisis
View the documentRefugees from the former Yugoslavia - The view from Germany
View the documentDeveloping early warning systems
View the documentChallenging the assumptions of repatriation
View the documentAfrican hospitality takes the strain
View the documentInternational instruments concerning refugees.

Mozambican refugees and their brothers' keepers

The repatriation of Mozambican refugees is one of the great success stories of the UN High Commission for Refugees. Often overlooked. however. is the exemplary manner in which the host countries. notably Zimbabwe, Zambia, Swaziland and Malawi, welcomed and sustained the refugees in their various ways for nearly 15 years and created the conditions for their orderly and successful repatriation.

Two important factors need, first of all, to borne in mind. Southern Africa has a tradition of migrant labour, and hospitality to strangers is second nature to the people of that region.

This explains why the emergency phase of the crisis was easily handled by international relief agencies. In Zimbabwe, for example, over 100 000 Mozambican refugees were initially allowed to settle spontaneously in farms throughout the country more or less as migrant labourers. Secondly, the nature of the conflict was such that two of the neighbouring countries most dedicated to freedom and independence in Africa, Zimbabwe and Zambia, could not be indifferent. They lent support openly to the newly installed and beleaguered Frelimo government which had won independence from Portugal after a long and bitter liberation struggle Indeed Zimbabwe, along with Tanzania. sent troops into Mozambique. not only to protect the vital Beira railway but also to reinforce the Mozambican army in its war against Renamo. The latter not surprisingly considered Zimbabwe, Tanzania and Zambia as parties to the conflict and retaliated by carrying out raids into Zimbabwe and Zambia The attitude of both governments was therefore not just one of sympathy but also of responsibility.

It should also be borne in mind that the UNHCR was quick to put into place the 'care and assistance' phase of its operation. This phase follows the emergency measures (basically life-saving operations) and involves the day to day management of camps provision of water, health facilities and sanitation. clothing, cooking utensils, education, etc., with of course the support of governments and NGOs. The basic food, for example, is provided in most cases by the World Food Programme

As the conflict in Mozambique intensified and the flow of refugees into Zimbabwe increased and the farms became saturated with them, the Zimbabwean Government instructed that new arrivals be taken from the border and settled in five designated centres run largely by the UNHCR. No land was provided for self-sustaining agriculture, although horticultural and other supplementary activities were allowed.

By contrast, agricultural land was provided for the refugees in the one camp set up in Zambia at Ukwimi. The land was developed, with technical assistance. into one of the best UNHCR camps on the African continent: the refugees produced enough food for themselves and for sale.

Swaziland followed more or less the same policy as Zimbabwe, but here refugee relations with the local population and the Swazi authorities were not altogether smooth. Two camps were designated for settlement, but soon they were overcrowded. Those who settled in the rural areas at times found themselves at loggerheads with farmers over land. No land was provided for the camps for self-sustaining agrarian activities, to avoid, the authorities said, creating an atmosphere of permanence and prevent the refugees from considering Swaziland as their home. This was understandable for a country which rations land among its own people.

The camps survived on food rations. In towns, where considerable numbers of highly skilled Mozambican refugees settled, residents saw them as threats to jobs Relations deteriorated rapidly in 1990/91 when a wave of crimes, which hit Swaziland, was linked by the police to the refugees. Raids were carried out in Manzini and Mbabane, and over 300 Mozambicans (described as illegal immigrants) were rounded up and sent back in accordance with the extradition treaty signed with the Mozambican Government in 1990. That move was the direct result of immense pressure. It was a period when the number of refugees was put at 134000 (almost a fifth of the total population) and up to 400 were arriving weekly. With all the will in the world to help. the strain on the tiny Kingdom was just too much.

Malawi presented a completely different picture. It was the most generous of the four countries. It threw its borders wide open and allowed the refugees to settle wherever they liked. The few camps that were set up were open: refugees came and went as they pleased. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of refugees fleeing Mozambique headed for Malawi. By 1991 there were an estimated one million. In such a densely populated country, where 90% of the people are agrarian, land was of course in short supply. Although some of the refugees, who settled along the border, wandered in and out of Mozambique and sometimes cultivated lands there, they generally shared the local resources with the local people - food, water, health care and schools. The UNHCR launched several remunerative activities involving large numbers in the Central and southern regions These were mainly 'compensatory environment projects' such as afforestation and borehole digging. The World Bank also had similar but bigger projects in the North where the refugees were also employed.

Peace came in the nick of time for Mozambique and for the whole of Southern Africa, for the refugee burden on the resources of the host countries was reaching an intolerable level following the severe drought of 1992 They had nevertheless amply demonstrated they were their brothers' keepers