How did Zambia become the continent-leader in refugee integration? – By Arthur Simuchoba

Arthur Simuchoba (Zambia)This year Zambia took the liberty of observing World Refugee Day (June 20th), a week earlier than normal. There is, however, a sense that, even if unintentional, this was appropriate given that the country was among the earliest in Africa to begin taking in refugees and is currently among the leaders in the implementation of ‘local integration.’ This is one of the ‘durable solutions’ fervently promoted by the UNHCR, the refugee agency of United Nations, on the grounds that it confers permanent legal status to former refugees.

But local integration is often not readily appreciated or accepted by host communities. In Zambia for instance, the Deputy Home Affairs Minister Nixon Chilangwa has talked of the bewilderment with which it was received:

“How can you give citizenship to Angolans? How many Zambians have been given citizenship in Angola?”

Given the existence of such pressures, host governments have often not found it easy to make the leap from strict repatriation to local integration. But given the peculiarities of the situation in Zambia, implementation has proceeded apace.

December 18th, 2012 was a red-letter day for the refugee community in Zambia as one Jose Pinto, his wife and daughter, Angolan refugees of 33 years, were granted permanent resident status – opening the way to citizenship.

The three were only the first of about 10,000 former Angolan refugees earmarked for local integration. Some of the later arrivals, such as the Rwandan community, could eventually be included as well.

The programme has received support from the African Union (AU) which donated US$100,000 after the Home Affairs Minister at the time Edgar Lungu issued the first permits.

Though there has been some trepidation, Zambia’s options were always limited. Historically, there has been a succession of refugees who have ended up in the country due to displacement arising from the region’s liberation wars.

For example, the war and the subsequent RENAMO insurgency in Mozambique produced an influx into eastern Zambia and a succession of Zimbabweans, South Africans and Namibians have all passed through the country at various times.  There has also been a large group of Jehovah’s Witnesses whose fundamentalism had brought them into conflict with the state in Dr. Kamuzu Banda’s Malawi. Large groups of Congolese have also intermittently fled into Zambia in response to the periodic upheavals in their own country.

The earliest however were the Angolans, Zambia’s western neighbours, whose extended stay largely informed Zambia’s refugee policy. They began to reach the country barely two years after its independence in 1964, fleeing the liberation war in Angola.

They crossed in droves as the war intensified. By 1967, Zambia had established its first formal refugee settlement at Mayukwayukwa in western Zambia. It ranks among the oldest on the continent. Four years later a second one was formed in the north-west, again mainly for Angolan refugees.

They lost their refugee status in 2012 following the end of the civil war in 2002. It was 46 years since they had first arrived. Among them were second and third generation refugees, Zambian born and raised with no affinity to or first-hand knowledge of their country of origin.

Many of the others opted to return. The UNHCR has reported that a total of 76,500 were repatriated between 2003 and 2010. But this was not an option for all. Those born in Zambia quite understandably had no wish or motivation to leave the country of their birth, the only one they knew, and venture into the ‘unknown.’

They spoke no Portuguese, Angola’s official language. Ahead of them they saw only a difficult and perhaps impossible adjustment. Repatriation, they argued, would only render them refugees for the second time.

Equally, a large number of the Rwandans, who numbered over 11,000 after the 1994 genocide, were very reluctant to return when the time came. Unlike the Angolans, they were mainly urban-based and quite a number went into business (mainly trading) at the earliest opportunity. By the time their status lapsed in 2013, they had settled down and many were prospering.

Thus, even with the expiry of refugee status for the two main groups, there remained in the country about 53,000 former refugees, 19,000 of them in the two refugee settlements. They now awaited alternative legal status.

There were warnings of possible statelessness for those who would not return. But ultimately the government of Zambia, with the help of the international community, undertook to facilitate local integration for up to 10,000 Angolans.  Those who would successfully pass the screening would be granted residency status allowing them to progress to citizenship in line with the country’s immigration laws.

Zambia will require US$21 million between now and 2016 in financial support from the international community for socio-economic projects to benefit both local host communities and the former refugees.

Approximately 4,000 Rwandans would be eligible.  But there is less certainty about them. The government of Rwanda remains anxious that those who were involved in the 1994 pogroms should not escape justice by staying away. But on the whole, voluntary repatriation to Rwanda and Burundi has largely failed owing to a pronounced lack of interest among refugees.

Overall, Zambia’s decision to go the route of local integration has been hailed by the international refugee management community. The UNHCR representative in Zambia, Laura Lo Castro, has described it as “crucial and exemplary in Africa and beyond.” Zambia is seen as a pioneer of ‘durable solutions’ in a region where the management of refugees is still plagued by a number of shortcomings and difficulties.

National asylum systems still have difficulties in identifying those in need of international protection and capacity constraints are said to be severe. It is also still the case that most countries rely on encampment policies that restrict the freedom of movement of refugees and asylum-seekers and impede their efforts to become self-reliant. Xenophobia has been on the rise as refugees are increasingly seen as competitors for scarce economic opportunities.

In this maze, the path chosen by Zambia – local integration – is widely thought of as the most effective because it gives former refugees a secure and permanent legal status. How the three-year programme will play out will no doubt influence the future course of such solutions in Sub-Saharan Africa and beyond.

Arthur Simuchoba is a Zambian journalist. This article was commissioned via the African Journalism Fund.

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