June 20th, 2020 came and passed with few of us saying much about World Refugee Day.
The theme of the day this year, is every action counts. The idea is that each of us can do something. Our combined actions can definitely create necessary change.
World Refugee Day is essentially a day on which we honour the strength and courage of refugees. A day on which the public are made aware of the plight of refugees and are encouraged to support them. Mona-Lisa Danieli Mungure, the Director of Molao-Matters a Botswana-based organisation which interests itself in legal literacy, when introducing the various struggles of refugees in Botswana, defined a refugee as “a survivor of trauma, pain, hardship; a conquerer of death.” Warsan Shire, the poet born in Kenya to Somali parents, in her poem, Home, says, “No one leaves home unless//home is the mouth of a shark//you only run for the border//when you see the whole city running as well…//no one leaves home unless home chases you// fire under feet// hot blood in your belly// it’s not something you ever thought of doing//until the blade burnt threats into your neck//and even then you carried the anthem under your breath//only tearing up your passport in an airport toilet// sobbing as each mouthful of paper//made it clear that you wouldn’t be going back//You have to understand//that no one puts their children in a boat// unless the water is safer than the land//no one burns their palms//under trains// beneath carriages//no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck// feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled means something more than journey//no one crawls under fences// no one wants to be beaten//pitied”
In the times of COVID-19, I imagine it is even more challenging to be a refugee. One cannot resist considering the many people who find themselves stuck “away from home”. It is of course not the same as being one who seeks refuge. To an extent though, perhaps we can all imagine how it must feel – the inability to move; or be home when you would wish to is definitely difficult as describe by Shire. That said, there is need, especially now, to protect people who have been displaced, whether by political lack of stability, or other factors, from COVID-19, as well as from the effects of the interventions.
Statistically, in Botswana, there are said to be about 2,833 recognised persons of concern, including refugees and asylum seekers in Dukwi Refugee Camp, which is currently the only refugee camp in the country. About 938 of this population are Namibians. 729 are Zimbabweans. 636 are from Democratic Republic of Congo and the remaining are from various other countries.
Botswana’s laws and policies governing asylum seekers and refugees have been said to be rather controversial to say the least. A refugee, in Botswana is only accorded refugee status if they are a political refugee. Refugees are not granted traveling documents to leave the country. In fact, once one leaves the country, their status is revoked. The Francistown Centre for Illegal Immigrants is used to hold asylum seekers and those who have been denied recognition as refugees, despite the fact that their status is quite variant to that of an illegal immigrant. There have been instances, as in that of Amina Hirsi of Somalia, where her husband, having been recognised as a political refugee and moved to Dukwi, she, the wife has been left in the centre.. Numerous matters have been brought by asylum seekers to the Courts of Botswana as many are kept at the centre for extended periods, despite clear provisions in legal framework, as they cannot be returned to their countries of origin. Munguri has said there is a clear need for legal reform and to adjust provisions and close gaps in the law.
Considering education, it is quite difficult to progress beyond senior high school, due to various factors including economic status, and the position of the Encampment Policy.
Further, there is stigma attached to being known as a refugee, which affects how people view themselves and how they seek assistance. It has increasingly become difficult to offer assistance in the camp, with various organisations denied entry in.
Ditshwanelo Centre for Human Rights, on giving an update on Namibian Refugees stated that following an agreement between Botswana and Namibia, Namibian refugees are to be repatriated to Namibia with a deadline of 13th July 2018. Those refugees who are not, by that point, repatriated are to be considered unlawfully in Botswana. The refugees have made futile efforts to have their socio-political and economic domestic situation addressed. It is unclear whether these have indeed been addressed.
How are we holding our government accountable for the various problematic laws and policies and other decisions affecting asylum seekers and refugees, in our public silence, I wonder? Surely out of empathy and botho, we can imagine the challenges of being, as Ijeoma Umebinyuo would say, “too foreign for here// too foreign for home//never enough for both.