Tuesday, March 2, 2021

UNHCR ÔÇô Gov’t at odds as Botswana wants refugees out

More than 3000 refugees at the Dukwi camp were last week bracing for deadly waterborne diseases, after their supply of potable water was disconnected because government has not paid the water bill.

The water crisis has caused panic at the camp that government may be pursuing a scotched earth policy to force refuges out of the country. Botswana is pulling the welcome mat from under the feet of refugees and has been pressuring the United Nations High Commission for refugees (UNHCR) to repatriate Zimbabwean and Namibian refugees in Dukwi.

The UNHCR, which is worried about the refugees’ safety, has been resisting the pressure from Botswana, resulting in a stalemate between government and the UN agency. The Ministry of Defence Justice and Security told Sunday Standard this week that, “the policy on refugees in Botswana is to accept anybody who meets the national processes for asylum. It is recognized however, in the 1951 UN Convention on the Status of Refugees that being a refugee should not be a permanent status for any individual hence countries and the UNHCR are always working on finding a durable solution for refugees commensurate with articles of the Convention that the State Party has agreed to.”

Ministry Public Relations Officer, Samma Tabudi further stated that, “Botswana, like all countries hosting refugees, works with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) on finding durable solutions to refugee problems, i.e repatriation, resettlement and reintegration. These solutions are open to and applicable to all refugees hosted in Botswana, including Zimbabweans and Namibians. However, of the three options, Botswana considers repatriation as the best durable solution for addressing refugee problems.” With UNHCR and the Botswana government still unable to find common ground on the issue of Namibian and Zimbabwean refugees there are fears that Dukwi refugees, estimated to be slightly more than 3000 have been caught in the cross fire.

By Friday Dukwi refugees, among them babies, pregnant women and the elderly were on their fourth day without potable water after the Water Utilities Corporation (WUC) had cut the water supply at the camp. In a curious turn of events, WUC chose instead to divert the water into a forest of trees outside the camp. By Friday when the Sunday Standard team visited the camp, big water puddles had formed outside the camp where the water was gushing out of the WUC pipeline onto a thicket of wild trees. Meanwhile, thirsty Refugees inside the camp were scratching for untreated water from ponds and had written to the UNHCR and Botswana government alerting them that this may “lead to water-borne diseases.”

The Ministry of Defence Justice and Security however insists that, “Government has an obligation to provide water to all its institutions irrespective of who the beneficiary is. Botswana has been providing safety, shelter and all services to refugees in Botswana. Indeed it can be confirmed that water in Dukwi has been disconnected due to the incredibly high and unsustainable water bill. It has to be noted that Dukwi is not immune to commercial water charges and the harsh realities of water scarcity affecting all parts of the country. Going forward, water restrictions that may be imposed on villages around the Camp like Dukwi village, Mosetse, Lepashe, Gutamogoree and others, will certainly be extended to the Camp as well. This water disconnection is a temporary setback which is being addressed in short and long terms, in collaboration with Water Utilities Corporation including trying to resuscitate the two boreholes identified around the Camp.

The other problem is that refugees have been using portable water for agricultural and horticultural activities, which is not sustainable cost wise for Botswana Government. We have established that it is these activities that have led to the exorbitant bill which led to the disconnection. It is this issue that we are actively engaged with UNHCR with a view to providing water in the Camp only for household purposes now and in the future.” Sunday Standard has established that the Ministry of Defence Justice and Security says it has depleted its budget and has asked the UNHCR whose total budget for Botswana in 2013 was P5 million to pay part of the P7 million water bill. The UNHCR on the underhand is understood to have used up its budget.

The Ministry told Sunday Standard that, “all avenues are being explored to find a quick solution for the reconnection of the water supply in the Camp as a matter of priority. For its part, the Ministry of Defence, Justice and Security is within its limited and already depleted 2013/14 budget working round the clock to salvage any possible savings from across the Ministry to pay this huge and unprecedented bill. It is not unusual therefore, to pursue the matter with our primary cooperating partner, which is the UNHCR. Communication with them on this matter was in primary pursuit of the welfare of refugees which the Botswana Government regards as very important.

We believe that the UNHCR has the same purpose and mission, and is committed to work with us to find a solution to this problem.” The relationship between Botswana and the UNHCR is believed to be strained because Botswana is stalling from 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. This refusal to update its refugee legislation allows Botswana to discriminate against refugees by denying them anti-retroviral treatement, closing them out of the local job market and keeping them in camps. While UNHCR has vowed in its website that it will ensure that basic services are provided while advocating for the lifting of the restrictions on refugees freedom of movement in Botswana and press for reforms on the national asylum laws, the government of Botswana on the other hand is alleged to have turned the heat on refugees.

Sources inside the Dukwi refugee camp claim that the Ministry of Defence Justice and Security is dragging its feet in renewing refugees’ resident permits while police on the other hand have stepped up arrests and detentions against refugees found with expired permits. This they claim is part of a plan to frustrate refugees out of the country. The Ministry, however stated that, ”delays would be unavoidable because often times applicants do not provide sufficient information necessary for issuance and renewal of permits and travelling documents.

This inconveniences all stakeholders involved in the processing of the documents. However, where there are deserving cases, such as education and medical needs, the Ministry of Defence, Justice and Security has facilitated with the relevant authorities, issuance of temporary documents without delay.” The Ministry further stated that, “anybody found irrespective of nationality without travel documents or working without work and residence permits would be in violation of the laws of Botswana and applicable measures would be taken.” UNHCR Public Relations officer would not answer Sunday standard questions saying the country head of mission, Lynn Ngugi was the only one authorized to speak to the media. At the time of going to press Ngugi was reported to be out of the country.

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