Thursday, October 22, 2020

Embattled UNHCR shuts down operations in Botswana

Thousands of refugees at Dukwi Refugee Camp in northern Botswana will likely be left in the lurch when the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) closes its Gaborone office. Over 2 851 refugees are based at the Dukwi Refugee Camp. The UNHCR revealed this week that it will be phasing down its Botswana operations at the end of June 2016. 

“This means we will be reducing our presence,” said Tina Ghelli, UNHCR Senior Regional External Relations Officer.

The news come in the wake of a series of stories that the Sunday Standard broke in 2014 detailing how the relationship between the government of Botswana, UNHCR and refugees hit rock- bottom. The reports indicated that the UN agency’s relationship with the government of Botswana soured after the Directorate of Intelligence and Security Services (DISS) launched widespread operations against UNHCR envoys. The relationship deteriorated to record lows earlier in 2014 when the UNHCR was forced to recall its Chief of Mission Lynn Ngugi after the Ministry of Justice, Defence and Security lodged a complaint with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation; accusing her of inciting Dukwi refugees to revolt. Sources close to the UNHCR revealed that the UN diplomat was under surveillance by DISS operatives.

Sunday Standard also turned up secret documents revealing how Ngugi claimed that the Botswana government was using citizen staff at UNHCR to spy on the UN agency. The diplomat then hatched a cloak and dagger operation to purge UNHCR of citizen staff. Asked what could have necessitated the envisaged termination of UNHCR operations in Botswana, Ghelli said the number of refugees in Dukwi has decreased by 40 percent because many of them had found a durable solution, either through voluntary repatriation or resettlement to a third country. 

“UNHCR is therefore realigning its programmes in Botswana. Similar approaches have been taken in a number of UNHCR offices globally where governments have strengthened their response to refugees. For example, UNHCR ended its presence in Lesotho when South African refugees returned home at the end of the apartheid. We ended our presence in Swaziland when the number of refugees declined following the return of the Mozambicans at the end of the civil war,” Ghelli said. 

She added that all the governments in which UNHCR had scaled down its operations had assumed their international responsibilities towards refugees by providing them with protection and assistance. She further said UNHCR is still supporting the respective governments from its regional office in Pretoria. 

“This is the same in Botswana where the government has demonstrated its ability to ensure the legal and social protection of refugees,” she said.

According to Ghelli, UNHCR will continue to provide support in Botswana for various programmes aimed assisting refugees. 

“We will still maintain a reduced physical presence in the country and will provide additional support from UNHCR’s Regional Office for Southern Africa, based in Pretoria,” she said. 

She confirmed that they have consulted the Botswana government and refugees. “Yes. We have done this in full consultation with the government. The refugees have also been informed and we have assured them that UNHCR will continue to assist them with support from the regional office in Pretoria,” she said.

Asked if the ending of UNHCR’s operations in Botswana is linked to the two parties’ supposedly acrimonious relationship, Ghelli said “Actually, UNHCR has an excellent relationship with the government of Botswana.” 

However, Ngugi was the second UNHCR Chief of Mission in Botswana to be recalled following pressure from government after her predecessor Roy Hermann was recalled following yet another complaint by Botswana over that he was meddling in the Basarwa-CKGR issue. At the time, Hermann insisted that the issue of Basarwa of CKGR fell within his mandate of helping internationally and nationally displaced people.

Sunday Standard had intercepted e-mail correspondence dated 9th September 2013 between Ngugi and her colleagues conspiring to surreptitiously get rid of citizen staff by covering up the clandestine mission as a restructuring exercise. The surreptitious cleansing exercise was apparently not lost on the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Defence, Justice and Security, Segakweng Tsiane who lodged a complaint of unfair labour practices against UNHCR, roping in UNDP Resident Representative Anders Pederson, Botswana’s Ambassador to the United Nations and Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation.

The recent developments also come at a time when more the government of Botswana is embroiled in another court case in which 700 Namibians living at Dukwi Refugee Camp have filed an urgent application seeking a restraining order to stop the Botswana government from implementing the cessation clause.

The two parties are going to court following the Botswana government’s failure to invoke the cessation clause of December 31, 2015 in respect of Namibian refugees living in Dukwi Refugee Camp. The calling into motion of the cessation clause means the refugee status accorded to Namibian refugees in that country would have ceased to be in effect as from December 31, 2015. In the affidavit, the refugees argue that should they return to Namibia they would face prosecution for alleged political offences committed in Namibia prior to their seeking refuge in Botswana in 1999. Botswana has also deported at least three Ugandan refugees despite concerns raised by their lawyers that their lives were in danger. 

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