Parliament should fight government’s xenophobia

Botswana on Wednesday granted 10 Eritrean football players political asylum and or declared them refugees. Attorneys for the 10 refugees and the Eritrean Movement for Democracy and Human Rights’ relentless fight for justice should be praised.

This is after an embarrassing statement by the Minister of Justice, Defence and Security that no consideration would be given for the players plea for political asylum.  The statement by the Minister and his other actions lately on asylum issues threaten the good name and history of Botswana on these matters especially its role during the liberation struggle.

Political asylum is an important right enshrined in Article 14 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and the rules of international human rights law. It is a complementary provision to Article 3 that everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

All countries, including Botswana, who have agreed to the UN Conventions Relating to the Status of Refugees, must as a matter of principle, grant people, who do qualify, refugee status to preserve their lives, liberties and security.

President Issaias Afwerki is very clear in his refusal to be democratised, "it's too early to talk about democracy...simplistic, western political formulae may not suit Eritrea". The country is closed with no free local or international media and civil society, no legal opposition parties and general poor record of human rights. There's conscription akin to slavery. It has been this way since 1993 when the territory seceded from Ethiopia in 1993 and gained independence. Why then did the Minister and his government struggle with a simple matter of granting people from a country like Eritrea refuge?

There's clearly some kind of xenophobia at government enclave. Thousands of foreigners have been deported or declared undesirable elements since April 2008.

The most affected countries are China, India, Nigeria and other Asian and West African states. Lives of foreigners have become increasingly difficult whether they are in Botswana legally or not.

Thousands of visa applications of foreigners seeking to work here or do business or tour the wonders of Botswana have been rejected. It is difficult to issue residence and work permits on time and this has affected local universities and other areas needing high skilled personnel. The visa restriction list from countries whose citizens don't need visas to visit Botswana has increased. The business community is concerned about these developments.

The intelligence agency has been accused of meddling in immigration affairs and exerting their thuggery tactics in deportations and denial of work and residence permits. Former President Festus Mogae has expressed concern about the rate at which Botswana is becoming unfriendly to foreigners and how this has and will affect the economy.

The initial denial of political asylum to the 10 Eritrean football players must therefore be understood against this backdrop of xenophobia of the government. Lately, the government has been dealing with refugees in a reckless, irresponsible and cruel manner. The case of Ugandan refugees is also instructive. There has been an attempt to revoke refugee status of some refugees especially those who are vocal on human rights. There are accusations that Dukwi refugee camp is worse than an apartheid prison; that refugees’ rights and freedoms are curtailed and that the government detests criticism and demands for transparency and accountability. Granting one refuge is no license for violating their rights; there's no forfeiture of fundamental rights and freedoms by refugees.

The Parliamentary Committee of Foreign Affairs, Defence, Justice, Security and Government Assurances should provide effective oversight on immigration matters, in particular the issue of refugees. 

The committee needs to look into government's compliance with international conventions and or treaties and international human rights law.

The committee has to summon relevant authorities and seek explanation on many issues relating to refugees.

The government, it would seem, wants to close down Dukwi refugee camp and for that reason, it seeks to stop granting asylum to deserving foreigners.

Dukwi camp was established by the Lutheran World Federation in 1978 to cope with a massive exodus of fleeing migrants from what was then known as Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). At its apex, the camp hosted more than 45,000 people, mostly fleeing institutionalised racism in Zimbabwe and apartheid South Africa.

There were also refugees from Namibia as well as Angola, the scene of Africa's longest and bloodiest civil conflict after the Portuguese left in 1975.

Dukwi therefore didn't become just a camp, it became evidence and symbol of Botswana's contribution to the liberation struggle in the African continent especially Southern Africa. It was at Dukwi where some struggle heroes ran to for refuge. Botswana under the current government doesn't want to play this role any longer.

Whilst many countries in the region are democratic, not all of them are democratic. There's a need to assist those who arrive here running away from oppression.

There has to be a luau of ethical foreign policy whereby Botswana should not only condemn undemocratic practices and violation of human rights but should assist those who seek refuge to change the situation in their countries.

When Parliament resumes in a few days, Members of Parliament should ask the Minister the many questions he has evaded since his controversial statement.

He should be held accountable for his actions. The Minister has to explain himself on these xenophobic tendencies.

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