Looming expulsion of Namibian refuges blight Botswana’s human rights image

18 Jul 2018

Botswana’s Donald Trumpesque deportation of Namibian refugees threatens to blight the country’s amour propre as the shining example of democracy and respect for human rights.

Close to 1000 Namibian refugees in Botswana who fear possible persecution back home were this week declared illegal immigrants after the deadline for voluntary repatriation came to an end. The government of Botswana seems determined to kick them out of the country despite a High Court and Court of Appeal decision three years ago which barred Botswana from repatriating the refugees without securing their safety back in Namibia.

Human rights group, Amnesty International has also appealed to the government of Botswana not to force any of the Caprivi refugees to return to Namibia if there is "a risk of persecution".

There had been a long standing agreement – facilitated by the United Nations refugee agency - for more than 3 000 Namibians, who fled the Caprivi Strip in the 1990s during a secessionist uprising, to stay as refugees in Botswana  The agreement, however, was expected to end on Wednesday.

In a statement, Amnesty international said that the development had left more than 900 refugees, including at least 400 children, who have never lived in Namibia, in limbo.

Amnesty international's deputy director for Southern Africa, Muleya Mwananyanda, said that there was a lot at stake, and as a result the refugees should not be returned home if their safety could not be guaranteed.

"A lot is at stake here. If the government of Botswana forces people to return to Namibia where they may face human rights violations, it will be breaching its international and national obligations under law," said Mwananyanda.

The rights group said it visited Botswana last month where some of the remaining refugees expressed fears to return back home.

The refugees fled to Botswana 20 years ago after a cessation uprising in the Caprivi Strip, now Zambezi region.

Historically, the strip, named after a German Chancellor Leo von Caprivi, was acquired from the United Kingdom so that German South West Africa could access the Zambezi River and the route to Tanzania, then German East Africa.

The region became a pseudo-independent territory in 1976 as a region called the Eastern Caprivi Homeland, with its own flag, national anthem, and coat of arms. It maintained this status until 1990 when the administration of Namibia moved from Pretoria to Windhoek.

In 1994, armed conflict between the Namibian government and the Caprivi Liberation Army (CLA) erupted. The CLA wanted the strip to secede from Namibia.  The war resulted in the destruction of property, gross human rights violation, and displacement of more than 3,000 people.

The displaced people moved to Botswana and were given refugee status before being settled at the Dukwi Camp.

Since 2002, the government of Botswana has tried to repatriate these refugees by revoking their refugee status. However, in 2015, the High Court in Lobatse and the Court of Appeal overturned the decision, stating that the country’s Ministry of Defense, Justice and Security had to ensure that the refugees get a safe return home.

Minister Shaw Kgathi says the Botswana government holds that the refugees’ status was temporary and the refugees were required to go home once their country is stable and secure.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) official Layla Anabtawi stated that as at Thursday this week,  only 74 refugees had returned home voluntarily out of the 940, Namibian  She further said that the rest had to register or else end up as illegal immigrants in Botswana.

The status of the camp has also come under scrutiny, which Anabtawi had described as appalling in June.