Hundreds of refugees and asylum seekers in Malawi have been forcibly relocated from the capital, Lilongwe, to an overcrowded government camp.
Over the past week, more than 300 refugees, including 100 children, have been rounded up and sent to Dzaleka camp, about 30 miles away.
The Ministry of Homeland Security issued an ultimatum two months ago for all refugees in the country to return to Dzaleka by 15 April or face eviction from their homes. The government says refugees were taking jobs and economic opportunities away from Malawians.
Dzaleka was built in 1994 to house thousands of people escaping violence in Rwanda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (then known as Zaire). It was built to accommodate 12,000 people, but is now home to more than 50,000. An estimated 20,000 refugees are understood to be living outside the camp.
On 17 May, police began raiding homes and closing shops and businesses in four areas of Lilongwe. Residents were taken to Maula prison before being relocated to the camp.
On 19 May, the army was brought in to help police round up people in Mgona, about seven miles from the city centre, after residents protested against the evictions.
“These people [refugees] were our source of income. They were giving us jobs and we can’t imagine what life will be like now that they are gone,” said Getrude Banda, a local resident.
The minister of homeland security, Ken Zikhale Ng’oma, warned that evictions would be extended to other parts of the country in the coming weeks, despite pressure to halt the relocations from UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, the Centre for Democracy and Economic Development Initiatives (CDEDI), and the Malawi Human Rights Commission.
Refugees sit packed together at Maula prison. Photograph: Courtesy of Inua Advocacy
“[The] government is committed to respect the rule of law by protecting its citizens and people from other countries, including refugees and asylum seekers – some of these people are economic migrants who came to do business and they do not pay tax,” said Ng’oma.
“Listening to what the minister is saying is quite disheartening,” said Innocent Magambi, the chief executive of Inua Advocacy, which fights for refugee rights. “The refugee community are enormously contributing to the economy of this country.”
The executive director of CDEDI, Sylvester Namiwa, said: “Forcing the refugees back to Dzaleka is not justifiable. We have to remember we have citizens resident in other countries, such as South Africa.”
The government imposed a similar eviction order to refugees in 2021, but no action was taken by the authorities.
The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, predicts that by the end of the year it will have registered more than 70,000 refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced people in Malawi.