Sunday, September 27, 2020

Botswana urged to be more refugee friendly

Government’s obsession with security in relation to people fleeing from other countries to seek asylum in Botswana has led to authorities flouting the rights of refugees that are otherwise assured under the United Nations Convention relating to Refugees, 1951.

In this context, an instance is cited where all Somali refugees across the country were rounded up by the Security forces recently, and were then confined to Dukwi Refugee Camp.

Madoda Nasha, Assistant Protection Officer, at the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) said, “The other potentially dire problem we have is the recent move by Government of confining a particular nationality to the Dukwi Refugee Camp.”

He pointed out that a sizeable number of them had their businesses closed down, adding that, “Their livelihoods have drastically changed as a result.”

Nasha stated that whilst the move could well have been motivated by legitimate reasons, it is important to find ways of addressing the issues without causing severe disruption to their lives and livelihood.

Information passed to the Sunday Standard reveals that, in cases where grace prevailed, and some refugees were allowed to find employment, the process involved in granting them the relevant documentation, has proved unnecessarily long.

The procedure is that the refugee must provide a valid letter of offer from the prospective employer. To this must be attached another letter confirming their refugee status and other supporting documents submitted to the UNHCR.

According to UNHCR officials, the letter would then be forwarded to the Office of the President with a cover letter, whereupon a recommendation would then be made to the Department of Immigration on whether the permit should be issued or not.

“This process reportedly takes up to four weeks or more, with the latent risk that they may lose job opportunities, and thus ability to generate an income and become self sufficient.

“The effect of this is that the refugees continue to depend on food, water, shelter and other amenities that are paid for by the Government and UNHCR.”

Where a job would have been secured, the same lengthy procedure and processes apply for work permits.

Although Botswana has ratified several conventions, including the convention relating to the status of refugees of 1951, it emerges that she has done so subject to some reservations regarding a number of articles in the 1951 convention.

For example, Article 7, Article 17 and Article 26 of the convention, provides that host countries treat refugees like they would other legitimate immigrants, for purposes of whatever benefits or rights due to them, that they should be allowed to engage in some income generating activities to be able to sustain themselves and their families, and also that of freedom of movement, respectively.

In addition to these articles, which Botswana has opted not to observe, UNHCR states that the country has also rejected Article 31 and 32 of the Convention, which call on states not to penalize refugees for entering into their territories, provided that they present themselves to the authorities at the earliest possible time and show good cause for their illegal entry.

Article 32 further states that it shall be a breach of the convention, to expel refugees lawfully, save on grounds of national security or public order.

Notwithstanding these provisions, there are concerns that Botswana’s current way of handling of refugees is not in concert with the “Shining Star of Democracy” image that the world has of the country.

Against this background, the University of Botswana Refugee Project, under the Department of Law, this week organized a weeklong workshop, titled “A critical analysis of the Refugee laws and procedures of Botswana”.

Dr. Onkemetse Tshosa, Senior Law Lecturer at the UB, said, “The challenges being faced by the country derives largely from operating on laws that were based on circumstances in the past, adding that things have changed a lot.

To cap it all, Botswana’s former Foreign Minister, Dr. Gaositwe Chiepe, said, “…we must order our asylum laws, our social protection endeavors and our reception and resettlement policies as to be refugee-friendly, and persuade countries around us to do the same.”

In order to highlight the seriousness of the refugee issue, she asked, “Who would have thought that Mengistu Haile Mariam of Ethiopia would someday flee his country and end up in Zimbabwe, or Uganda’s Idi Amin end up in Saudi Arabia?”

Chiepe expressed the view that if it happened to others, then Botswana cannot play safe to an otherwise historical and global problem.
“It can happen to anyone, anywhere,” she said.

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Sunday Standard September 27 – 3 October

Digital copy of Sunday Standard issue of September 27 - 3 October, 2020.