UNHCR breaks silence on Eritrean refugees

Eritrean refugees at Kutlwano Police Station recently
Eritrean refugees at Kutlwano Police Station recently

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) regional representation for Southern Africa has moved swiftly to allay looming fears and tensions in Botswana over the Eritrean footballers and other refugees’ cases that have become the talk of the country.

This was after Mmegi made an effort to hear the UNHCR side of the story on the contentious issue of refugees in Botswana, particularly the Eritrean players’ case. In a response to Mmegi UNHCR said they are not aware of any intentions by Botswana to expel or kick out the 10 Eritrean football players who were recently granted refugee status in Botswana.

Asked on the ‘resettlement’ letter sent to them by the government, UNHCR senior regional external relations officer, Tina Ghelli responded: “We are not at liberty to discuss and share contents of internal correspondence.” Botswana recently wrote a letter to UNHCR in what was interpreted as an advancement of resettlement of the 10 Eritrean players.

While the government has come under immense criticism for the initial position they held regarding the refugees, Ghelli said they have always been there as partners.  “UNHCR has assisted the Government of Botswana by providing the Refugee Advisory Committee (RAC) with eligibility guidelines for Eritrean asylum seekers to help guide them in their decisions.”

The refugees were granted refugee status in accordance with national law on October 27, 2015. Botswana is party to the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees. Advising on resettlement, which Botswana is allegedly pushing for, Ghelli said resettlement is not a right embodied in either Botswana national legislation or in International Refugee Law and Instruments.

“The decision to refer these refugees for resettlement will be based on individual assessments of their cases in light of established criteria. UNHCR will assess their cases, in a similar manner accorded to other refugees. Resettlement is a process that can take between two and three years. Once referred for resettlement by UNHCR, the receiving countries undertake their own interviews and undertake a final decision on the cases. Once accepted, there are other processes required to be followed, such as security checks and health screenings. Only after completion of these steps and upon receiving final approval, would a refugee depart to the resettlement country,” said the UNHCR senior regional external relations officer.

Resettlement is the transfer of refugees from an asylum country to another state that has agreed to admit them and ultimately grant them permanent settlement. Resettlement however only happens where refugees live in perilous situations or have specific needs that cannot be addressed in the country they have sought refuge in. UNHCR is the one that helps resettle refugees to a third country. Botswana has had 117 resettlement departures since January this year according to statistics from UNHCR.

Asked what they have done to support the Botswana government on the issue, Ghelli said UNHCR supports the government to ensure that the basic needs of all refugees in Dukwi camp are met.  “The Eritreans are currently residing in camp where they have been given shelter, household items and will receive food distributions, they also have access to social services provided by the government in the camp. They are receiving the same assistance and support that is provided to all refugees in Dukwi,” she responded.

She added: “Our view is that the Government of Botswana has met their international obligations towards the Eritrean refugees by granting them asylum and relocating them to Dukwi refugee camp. We regularly coordinate issues related to durable solutions for refugees with Governments and we will do the same with these refugees just as we do with any other group.” While Botswana seems to be eager to resettle and repatriate refugees in the Dukwi camp, statistics show that Botswana has got the lowest number of refugees and related cases in the region. Botswana, a middle-income economy has got 2,833 refugee cases. They have requested USD 4,191,907 funding from UNHCR and got 58.59 percent leaving a gap of 41.5 percent. Mozambique however has 18,816 cases, South Africa-586,000, Zimbabwe-7,309, Angola-18,157, Malawi-23,288, Namibia-4,599 and Zambia -51,277 cases. Globally countries receive tones of asylum seekers everyday from the Syrian crisis.

The secretary of Justice, Defence and Security, Augustine Makgonatsotlhe told this publication that all they want is everlasting solutions for the refugees. “The letter was a correspondence to the UNHCR to facilitate resettlement and other options. The Eritreans are refugees here and no one is kicking them out. We have granted them the refugee status but like I said we want everlasting solutions for refugees and we will continue to engage UNHCR on the possibilities of durable solutions to their problems,” explained Makgonatsotlhe.

One of the biggest challenges with Botswana is that the Refugees Act is not aligned to the 1951 Convention. UNHCR and the government of Botswana are however currently reviewing the act with the hope of updating the Act. An initial stakeholder workshop was held on 5-6 February to begin the process to review the Refugee (Recognition and Control) Act.

The UNHCR says they continuously engage and advocate for the government to take active steps to amend the country’s refugee legislation, the 1968 Refugees (Recognition and Control) Act in order to enhance adherence to international refugee protection standards.

In its efforts to finding durable solutions for refugees in Botswana, since January 2015, UNHCR facilitated the return of five Namibians, and 13 Zimbabweans. In 2015, as of 14 September, 117 people have departed for USA, Australia, Sweden, Iceland, Finland and Canada. The UNHCR continues to advocate through its Regional Office for additional resettlement missions to Botswana, as there are only two durable solutions available for refugees in the country, which are voluntary repatriation and resettlement.

Meanwhile Mmegi has established that the government is divided over the issue of refugees. Impeccable sources suggest that it is now evident that technocrats are up against political leadership whose reasons for abhorrence of the refugees are not yet known.

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