Friday, July 19, 2024

The ugly face of Botswana

Were it not for the police men in blue tunics with a Botswana coat of arms patrolling the cordoned off area, most visitors to the Dukwi refugee camp would barely realize that they are in Botswana. The camp, which is synonymous with Botswana’s hard line policy towards refugees, is a grim hovel where those inside have different rights from those outside.

Residents can not move out of the camp without an official pass. They are not allowed to work and have been closed out of Botswana antiretroviral treatment programme. They survive on food rations from the United Nations and hand me down clothes from the Lutheran Federation of Churches that keep them from destitution.

As refugees, they have no country to protect them and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) seems well out of his depth: Shana Kaninda, Head of Mission of the UNHCR in Botswana, says, “In terms of the extent of our authority in ensuring states’ compliance with international statutes, we can only remind affected governments, in this case Botswana, of the conventions they have ratified under the auspices of the United Nations General Assembly.”

Kaninda is trying to show how far the 1951 Convention on the right of refugees falls short of protecting refugees. He explains that the role of the UNHCR office in Botswana is to support the Government in its work with refugees and facilitate the realization of the three durable solutions recommended by the UNHCR.

These include repatriation to country of origin, integration into the local community and resettlement to a third country.

“Only rarely, does it happen that we find ourselves looking out for a country that would accept an asylum seeker, following rejection of their request for recognition as refugees, while we held a divergent view,” added Madoda Nasha, Protection Assistant at the UNHCR.

“When Botswana appended its signature to the convention relating to the status of refugees in Geneva, she expressed reservations with some of the provisions of the convention, and as you would be aware, states have that latitude when signing international agreements or conventions to accept or express reservations in all or some aspects of the conventions,” Kaninda added.
The UNHCR head of Mission pointed out that it was on that basis that Botswana’s decision to keep refugees at Dukwi Camp should be understood.

Botswana has lagged behind in updating its Recognition and Control of Refugees’ Act, 1967 to align it with relevant international statutory provisions relating to the protection of asylum seekers and refugees, and asylum seekers in the country are having the worst of it.

The 2010 Regional Operations Profile-Southern Africa to acknowledge the challenge thus, “UNHCR’s focus in Southern Africa will be on helping governments to uphold asylum and enhance their protection capacities, including by updating existing laws and improving refugee status determination (RSD) and registration procedures.”

Botswana has, however, maintained a hard line, and cites national security as a key factor inhibiting the country from updating existing refugee laws.

Botswana’s policy of encampment of refugees, non-mandatory provision of ARV treatment and denial of employment for refugees is informed by the outdated piece of legislation.

The exclusion of refugees from the recently adopted 2010-2015 national strategic plan for HIV and AIDS intervention has been cited as testimony of Botswana’s exclusivist policy regarding alien populations, in particular refugees.

A joint UNHCR-University of Botswana (UB) workshop in June 2009 observed that the composition of the Refugees Advisory Committee (RAC, which is responsible for determining the eligibility of asylum seekers for refugee status (RSD), was not constituted with members appointed for their expertise or specialist knowledge on refugee law.

Even the powers conferred upon the Minister by the RAC as the final arbiter in approving or rejecting asylum seekers application for RSD was criticized as likely to compromise deserving applicants, because it is not guided by clear-cut and definite criteria.

The RAC currently comprises the District Commissioner in the Francistown area as it encompasses Dukwi Refugee Camp, all the Security Agencies including Directorate of Intelligence and Security Services (DIS) and Immigration Officials as well as person appointed from the public arena.
Augustine Makgonatsotlhe, Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Defence, Justice and Security, speaking on behalf of Government in a press briefing after a joint UNHCR-Government sponsored Media training workshop in Francistown this week, justified present refugee policy saying that it was premised on existing conditions at the time of ratifying the 1951 convention.

“It was both in the interest of national security and for the protection of the refugees themselves that Government opted to control refugee movement by way of encampment, although by all means they are assisted in every possible way to live a normal human life,” explained Makgonatsotlhe.
He explained that Government was in constant contact with the UNHCR with a view to determining how best to improve on existing measures, adding that his government was constrained by resources and can not manage the free movement of refugees.

Dikeledi Dingake, Legal Officer at Botswana Network for Ethics and Law on HIV and AIDS expressed the view that Botswana’s policy not to provide refugees with ARV was unjustified and inhumane in that it discriminated on the basis of one’s nationality, which is being used as a green card to access vital and life saving ARV.

“By granting asylum status to an individual as a Government, you are acknowledging that these people are in your country not by choice but they left their country of origin due to circumstances which posed a threat to their lives. In addition, by so doing, Botswana was committing as a country, to protect the right to life so that by denying refugees’ access to ARV, not only is Botswana condemning these poor souls to premature and otherwise avoidable death,” argued Dingake
She added that some of the refugees have been in Botswana for more than 10 years. Some are living with HIV and are expectant mothers. Their unborn babies cannot be saved by prevention of mother to child treatment.

Given that the pandemic knows no nationality, the present refugee policy was slammed for adversely impacting on the potential to deliver on the country’s national preventative initiatives as provided for under the national strategic plan’s theme of “zero infections by 2016”.

The southward movement of refugees and asylum-seekers from the Horn of Africa within mixed migratory flows seems to have placed severe strains on national asylum systems, and this has led to the UNHCR to observe that Botswana has adopted strict RSD procedures for asylum seekers coming from beyond its immediate borders.

With only a few weeks left before the world commemorates on June 20th 2010, the International day of the Refugee, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office in Botswana still hasn’t succeeded in persuading the country that it has obligations to observe international best practice relating to the status and handling of refugees.

As such, in Botswana, for aliens seeking asylum as for those already recognized as refugees, they are like a people with one eye focused on the firmament of the heavens while the other envisions the seemingly improbable prospect of permanent escape from fear, uncertainty and persecution.


Read this week's paper