The 20-year-old sojourn of some 900 fugitives from the Caprivian conflict could end today, as the Lobatse High Court hands down judgement in a matter in which the refugees are fighting against government decision to forcibly repatriate them. Staff Writers, MBONGENI MGUNI and MPHO MOKWAPE report
The matter has drawn regional and international scrutiny, not least between the two states involved. At a time when the Southern African Development Community (SADC) has heightened its efforts to market itself as a democratic, free and progressive bloc, the presence of refugees from the one country in the other, has become somewhat of an uncomfortable, even irritating reminder of the real difficulties that persist.
Already, the two countries have received unwanted attention from Amnesty International which says the planned forced repatriation amounts to refoulement, the globally accepted principle which forbids the rendering of a victim of persecution to his or her persecutor.
Over the years, politicians on both sides of the border have pressed the refugees to return home with Namibia and the United Nations refugee agency offering cash, fast-tracked civic registration, jobs, even building materials and Botswana offering transport to the border.
The refugees, however, who are survivors of the bloody 1998/99 secessionist conflict in the Caprivi Strip, have resisted repatriation citing possible persecution by the Namibian government, which banned the party under which they fought two decades ago. The refugees do not recognise Namibia’s authority in the Caprivi Strip and say, rather, SADC should open a dialogue on the matter. In 2016, as Botswana pushed on one side and the Namibian government pulled on the other, the refugees secured relief when Lobatse High Court judge, Jennifer Dube ruled against the planned repatriation saying Gaborone could not show that the refugees would be safe in Namibia.
Gaborone and Windhoek redoubled their efforts to repatriate the refugees, an effort given urgency by the scaling down of the UN agency’s presence in Botswana, which for government meant higher costs of supporting the Caprivians at Dukwi Refugee Camp. The UN had been helping government pay the cost of the refugees’ monthly food rations, education, health care and housing but the reduced presence meant a higher burden on government.
Today, still in Lobatse, Justice Godfrey Nthomiwa faces a familiar decision, as the refugees have once again taken their case to the courts, fighting a July 11 deadline to leave Dukwi or face deportation. Nthomiwa last week granted the refugees an interim order keeping them in Botswana while awaiting today’s decision.
The 709 Caprivians named as applicants, as well as their compatriots at Dukwi were denied permits to travel to Lobatse for last week’s case and will not be before Nthomiwa today. Authorities at the refugee camp have cracked the whip after the recent episode in which 12 elders from the refugees left Dukwi without permits and camped out at the SADC headquarters demanding action from the regional body. The 12 elders are still in detention at the Francistown Centre for Illegal Immigrants where they were taken to after being escorted from the SADC headquarters. They too are awaiting today’s decision.
According to papers before Nthomiwa, the crux of the matter is that the refugees are again arguing that Botswana is pushing them without taking into account the security issues in Namibia.
This decision, they say, violates a 2002 tripartite agreement between Botswana, Namibia and the UN granting them refugee status, the Refugees Act and international law.
“We cannot go back to Namibia when there is
Government, through Defence, Justice and Security minister, Shaw Kgathi says all the refugees’ concerns, as raised in the 2016 court case, have been addressed. According to Kgathi, government’s decision is part of an agreement between the two states and the UN refugee agency to end the Caprivians’ refugee status and facilitate their return to their home country.
Mujela has difficulty seeing anything beyond Nthomiwa’s judgement. Like every Caprivian at Dukwi, he is single-mindedly focussed on what will emerge from the Lobatse High Court.
“Eish, it’s a difficult situation,” he told Mmegi by phone yesterday when asked what the refugees will do if they lose their case.
“If at least SADC could intervene and engage Namibia, that would facilitate and be helpful for us.
“However, we are prepared for anything.”
Of the 900 Caprivians there, between 200 and 400 were born at Dukwi with Botswana birth certificates. However, instead of Omang, the children were issued refugee IDs when they came of age. Botswana is all they know. They have never set foot in their home country. Due to the latest developments, the children have been pulled out of school and their fate lies with Nthomiwa.
They can always come and school back home in Namibia, in their home villages and communities, says Namibian Commissioner for Refugees, Likius Valombola. Speaking from Windhoek, Valombola told Mmegi the country was waiting with open arms to receive the refugees.
The 74 who applied for voluntary repatriation this year all received US$300 per adult or child over 12 years or US$100 for children under 12, on arrival as well as assistance with civic registration, building materials, transport back to one’s village or community. The “voluntary package” also known as a “safety and dignity package” is funded by the UN.
Another 28 are due to voluntary cross the border by Tuesday, Valombola said.
Those who are forcibly repatriated will only be given transport to the border and transport to their villages or communities. “Upon the arrival of the 74, regional government officials also explained the various developmental programmes available within their specific communities. School-goers were informed how to get admitted and as you know we have free primary education in Namibia, others are now receiving social grants, pensions and the like.
“They are all now well-integrated. Some who were qualified teachers are now teaching, others are nurses, others are businessmen.
“They all have their identity documents and are full citizens living in dignity and safety,” Valombola told Mmegi.
The Refugee Commissioner insisted that Namibia upholds freedom of association and peace and those who want to pursue political motives are free to do so “within the law”.
“The government will receive them with open arms and will integrate them in their various communities.
They can participate in the political dispensation like any other Namibian. Unless they have other agendas which we are not aware of.
“We want all Namibians to come home,” he said.
The offers of cash, building materials and others have thus far barely moved the Caprivians at Dukwi. Nthomiwa’s judgement today, however, might.