For decades, the issue of refugees has been playing out on the world stage and has been handled differently by different countries.
During the First and Second World Wars and during the pronounced rivalry between America and the then Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), America easily granted asylum to refugees, defectors and asylum seekers from the USSR and ‘Red China’. Indeed, America encouraged such defections and paraded defectors in front of international media where they would profusely thank and praise America’s democracy and its capitalist system vis-à-vis the repressive Soviet and Chinese Communist dictatorships.
While the asylum seekers appreciated America’s support and kindness, these desperate people were used for propaganda purposes to show the world that people preferred America to the Russian and Chinese Communists.
The ‘Iron Curtain’ was very much pronounced and those East Europeans who managed to escape into Western Europe were welcomed as heroes who risked their lives for freedom.
But, today, the situation has drastically changed and many countries are no longer as welcoming to refugees as they used to be. Today, more than ever before, the world has a record number of refugees and displaced people from virtually every continent. It’s no longer refugees from between two rival Cold War superpowers. Just about every part of the globe has a refugee problem, including among the poorest countries in the world.
Africa has such a dilemma as countries host each other’s refugees.
Chad and Sudan took each other’s refugees. Nigerians fleeing Boko Haram seek asylum across the border in Cameroon, while Cameroonians caught in the crossfire between their government and secessionists flee into Nigeria for safety and protection.
I, for one, did not know what to make of a scenario that confronted me at my ‘home village’ of Dukwi Refugee camp in Botswana. I and some Zimbabweans found ourselves at Dukwi because of Robert Mugabe and his government. Here, we met dozens of refugees from DR Congo who were also there because of Robert Mugabe but for a reason completely the opposite of ours. Some of the DR Congo refugees were victimized in the rural villages where they lived because of their support for the late Laurent Kabila, who was propped up by Robert Mugabe’s army until a bodyguard shot and killed Kabila in his office.
So, there we were, with refugees who thought the world of Mugabe, the man we had run away from.
Botswana took good care of us and somehow managed to get us all to appreciate the protection and security it was offering us all regardless of our political differences as refugees from various countries.
I look at this particular experience with a lot of pride for Botswana because that is what should be the case There are Angolan and DR Congo refugees in Zimbabwe and so are Zimbabweans in Angola and DR Congo.
But then, there is a problem here because, unlike some of the countries with large numbers of refugees in neighbouring countries, there is no war or armed conflict in Zimbabwe. The absence of war or armed conflict in Zimbabwe highlights the simple fact that the cause of the Zimbabwean refugee problem is the government and its policies, aided by state machinery that tolerates no dissent.
There is pain, abuse and deaths in Zimbabwe.
Botswana must, therefore, not forcibly deport or repatriate Zimbabwean refugees in the country because the circumstances that caused them to flee to Botswana for protection and to survive are still there.
What is happening in Zimbabwe is a matter of public record and I know for a fact that Botswana knows the intimate details about the savagery that the government of Zimbabwe is subjecting people to.
What I do not understand is why Botswana wants to deal with the effects but not the cause. Botswana has saved hundreds of refugee lives so, after all that effort, it stands to reason if Botswana were to engage Zimbabwe’s Emmerson Mnangagwa and simply tell him to behave himself and create a conducive atmosphere for his citizens so that they have no reason to leave home as either political or economic refugees.
Botswana, please, the problem is not the refugees; it is the government they ran away from.
And this brings me to another issue of African countries signing international agreements they never intend to uphold. We all know about United Nations agreements that spell out the treatment of refugees and which were signed by UN member states, so where is this all coming from?
Countries that are host to refugees must deal and compel the refugee exporting countries to change their ways in the treatment of its citizens and to also comply with international economic standards so that they stay at par with its neighbors to prevent citizens flooding neighboring countries as refugees.
Can Botswana tell me what benefit it has received from Zimbabwe since Zimbabwe got independence? Can South Africa tell us too?
The Southern Africa region and the imbeciles at SADC have watched the situation deteriorating in the region and never did anything about it. And what exactly do the PhDs at SADC say about the forced removal of refugees from within their midst while they are busy making tea for leaders who are perennially bent on destabilizing the region?
SADC, Botswana, Namibia and South Africa must sit down and agree on how to make Zimbabwe behave. None of these countries are benefitting from the failed state in their midst.
As one who benefitted from Botswana’s benevolence, I plead with Botswana to not forcibly repatriate Zimbabwean refugees or any refugee for that matter.
Botswana, we look up to you for protection, security and guidance, you cannot afford to turn us away while you are dining and wining with the architect of the problem just across the border from you.
It is time the region faced the Zimbabwean government and set rules for it to behave because, Botswana, you are now tarnishing your image by kicking out refugees, some of whom will be dead in no time while we see images of the leaders of the two countries smiling and laughing as we bury our dead.
No, Botswana, no more forced repatriation of refugees, please. Deal with Mnangagwa first. No country will ever enjoy its own freedom when its neighbor is starving or is in turmoil. I am sure both Botswana and South Africa have already experienced this and know what to do.
It takes courage to be a refugee; forced repatriation of refugees is not the answer, Botswana.
*Tanonoka Whande writes in his personal capacity.