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Francistown High Court including the Court of Appeal have since intervened and ordered the government to respect the rights of asylum seekers and transport them to Dukwi Refugee Camp before being repatriated to their countries of choice. The asylum seekers whose asylum applications were declined by government claim to have been exposed to appalling and dehumanizing living conditions at the centre.
An asylum seeker is a person who flees his or her home country and spontaneously enters another country and applies for asylum. That country has the right to deny or grant that person asylum depending on the circumstances. Everyone has the right to asylum status. It is a right which dates back to an ancient juridical era. Under this concept a person persecuted by their own country may be protected by another sovereign authority such as another country or church by giving them sanctuary.
Organizations such as the UNHCR were established to lead and co-ordinate international action to protect refugees and resolve refugee problems worldwide. Its main purpose is to safeguard the rights and well-being of refugees. It also seeks to ensure that everyone can exercise the right to seek asylum and find safe refuge in another country or state with the option to return home voluntarily, integrate locally or resettle in a third country. UNHCR was established in 1950.
According to information from UNHCR there are approximately 3.3 million refugees in Africa and 12.5 million internally displaced persons. There are close to 3 000 refugees in Botswana from countries such as Namibia, Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda. They are based at Dukwi Refugee Camp.
In 2000 Botswana ratified the United Nations (UN) International Convention of Civil and Political Rights in which it undertook to protect the fundamental rights of all individuals within its territory regardless of their nationality or statelessness. This move is supposed to include asylum seekers, refugees and even migrant workers. The government has also ratified the African Union (AU) convention governing the specific aspects of refugee problems in Africa.
Botswana is ranked as one of the most peaceful countries in the world, according to the Global Peace Index 2016. It stands at number 28 out of 163 countries and it is regarded as the second most peaceful country in Africa. Given such a fair performance, it would not be queer for a person living in a war stricken country to consider Botswana as a haven for refuge. This is exactly what over 250 refugees bore in mind when they fled to Botswana approximately four years ago. Despite Botswana being a promised land to the desperate asylum seekers, they are crying foul at the treatment they are given by the government of Botswana authorities.
In fact there have already been media reports of a soured relationship between the government of Botswana and UNHCR over the treatment of the UNHCR envoys and refugees.
According to the refugees in their court papers, upon arrival at Kazungula Border Post they presented themselves to the immigration and declared their intentions to apply for refugee status in Botswana. However their dreams were quickly squandered when some mothers and their children were immediately detained at the Francistown Centre for Illegal Immigrants (FCII) pending the determination of their application for refugee status. The FCII is run and administered by the Department of Prisons. It also houses awaiting trial prisoners and convicts, all inmates are treated as prisoners.
Last week Francistown High Court Judge, Lot Moroka ruled in favour of three petitioners, Marie Iragi, Sophia Laheri and Theresa Butoyi who were detained at the Centre of illegal immigrants be released from detention. The first petitioner Iragi and second petitioner Laheri are citizens of the Republic of Congo who arrived in Botswana through the Kazungula Border Post at different dates in 2015. Iragi entered the border post accompanied by two minor children aged three years and two years. Laheri was also accompanied by two minor children aged five and three years. Upon arrival at the border post they presented themselves to the immigration and declared their intentions to apply for refugee status in Botswana but they were immediately detained at the Centre for illegal immigrants. Despite being in detention they were never told their fate post their rejection of their application for refugee status. They then approached the courts to secure their release from detention or urgency. The government on the other had opposed their release in court and further contested that the matter was not urgent. Represented by Human Right Lawyer Morgan Moseki their application was successful after a lengthy trial. In his Judgement Moroka said their detention was unlawful and should be released from detention. He said the right to personal liberty is sacrosanct. He also ordered that they be placed at Dukwi Refugee Camp pending their removal from Botswana to a country of their preference or other country willing to receive them. The respondent was ordered to pay the costs. Phadi Solomon another Francistown High Court Judge also made a ruling in another similar matter involving asylum seekers Engama Egezi and 163 others to be released from detention from the centre. Only 60 asylum had since been repatriated to Dukwi Refugee Camp.
The Attorney General then engaged Collins and Newman and appealed the decision of the High Court. The case was before Court of Appeal Judge, Justice Ian Kirby. The Attorney General argued that the asylum seekers were lawfully detained at the centre. On the other hand the applicants argued that they seek to be recognized as asylum seekers and not criminals with hidden motives. Justice Kirby upheld the High Court ruling that they should be released and be repatriated to Dukwi Refugee Camp and the Attorney General lost with costs. He ordered that they should all be repatriated by the 11th of August 2017
The Telegraph had the opportunity to interview some of the refugees who narrated their ordeal at the hands of government law enforcement authorities. Engama Egezi who is from the DRC said that escaping from his war ravaged country into Botswana was a dream come true as he hoped for a better life away from persecution. Little did he know that he was escaping from the frying pan into the fire.
“We were detained at Francistown Centre of Illegal Immigrants after our applications were turned down in 2015. We were turned into prisoners and our treatment matched those inmates. After petitioning the government we were released from the prison cells in the beginning of July this year. We however stay inside the prison fence with no shelter, lavatory and water,” he said.
He said they were now exposed to harsh living conditions where they lived with no food and proper shelter. They depended on food from donors, or leftovers from the prison inmates.
One of the asylum seekers who preferred to remain anonymous said they did not have access to water, were forced to bath in the open in the vicinity of everyone else in prison. He also revealed that some of the refugees were raped by prisoners. Despite reporting the incidents to the jail warders they were given a cold shoulder.
“The jail wardens simply told us that this is to be expected as prisoners have been caged for too long without sexual pleasure and shrugged off the reports we made. We were not even allowed to report to the police. We have also been exposed to hazardous health conditions and it was not easy to get medical help. We have since regretted the decision we made to escape into this country. We even fear for our lives and our lives are miserable,” he told this publication.
Reached for comment Botswana Prisons Spokesperson, Wamorena Ramolefhe denied such allegations at the Centre.
“Our statement is that there has never been such ill-treatment of refugees at the camp. We also do not have any rape case at the Centre,” he said.
Speaking to The Telegraph, Human Rights lawyer Moseki who represented the asylum seekers in court revealed that the refugees went through a lot of horror in prison. He said some of the children were housed in prison cells with dangerous inmates and were sodomized. He said some of the children are separated from their families and couldn’t get protected by their parents.
“What some of these asylum seekers are going through at the centre is heart breaking and horrific. Some of the children were sodomized. One of the children was sodomized by a Motswana cook at prison. No case was opened against such a despicable crime. Some volunteer to prostitute themselves for food,” he said.
Asked if complainants should launch a lawsuit against government, Moseki declined to comment.