How Botswana is struggling with Namibian refugees

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By Timo Shihepo

The Botswana government desperately wants to get rid of Namibian refugees, who have been residing in Botswana since 1998 but a court interdict and international refugee’s procedure are hindering the process, much to Botswana’s dismay.  

Over 3,000 civilians sought refuge in neighbouring Botswana between 1998 and 1999 after an unsuccessful secession attempt of Caprivi Strip (now the Zambezi region) from Namibia in 1998.

Led by Mishake Muyongo, Caprivi African National Union (CANU) party and the Caprivi Liberation Army (CLA) wanted the Caprivi region to be an independent nation. The Namibian Defence Force with the support of the Special Field Force discovered and raided a CLA training camp. That resulted in more than 100 armed CLA men and more than 2,800 civilians fleeing into Botswana.

Botswana granted them refugee status and housed them at the Dukwi Refugee Camp.

About 2,100 have since returned home and integrated into society but many others are refusing to leave fearing for their safety ‑ a stance that has irked Botswana to the extent that the government has revoked their refugee status and they are now considered to be illegally in that country.

In 2015, according to information seen by The Southern Times, the two countries signed an agreement to assist each other to repatriate the refugees. However, the breakthrough was halted because of a court interdict that the refugees filed in the Botswana High Court that prevented them from returning to Namibia.

The situation has been made worse by the fact that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has withdrawn from the region (except for the offices in South Africa) and this has left a burden on the shoulders of Namibia and Botswana.

“Our government does not perceive these people to be refugees anymore. We were embarking on the exercise of returning them back to their home because we are firmly convinced that nothing exists of the kind of threats to their safety and wellbeing they imagine in Namibia. But they and their allies took the matter to court to interdict their repatriation. We will follow the procedure, exhaust all we can that if they are not Batswana, they are Namibians, they are not refugees, and they then become illegal immigrants,” Botswana’s new President Mokgweetsi Masisi said this week during a working visit to Namibia during which he met President Hage Geingob.

“There are laws that govern what to do and how you conduct the business of illegal immigrants and that will follow. If there are any member of Batswana people living in Namibia then I am sure the laws of Namibia would deal with that person and they would be assisted to go home.  

We will wait for the outcome of the court process but we want this to have it cleared completely.” 

The conundrum that Botswana now faces is the fact that they cannot just revoke the refugee status at will without following the correct procedures, hence the court interdicts.

According to the UNHCR, there should be grounds for commencing cancellation/revoking procedures. 

Some of these grounds include misconduct by the individual, including threats or bribery; an error of fact or law by UNHCR in applying the inclusion or exclusion criteria; misconduct or administrative error by UNHCR at any stage in the Refugee Status Determination (RSD).

Furthermore, cancellation procedures should not be commenced solely on the basis of a change of opinion regarding a credibility finding of the facts on which the RSD decision was based.

These refugees are not violating any of these grounds but Botswana could argue that they are free to return home without the possibility of jail time.

“All these people are welcome. Our officials have gone there to tell them and come see how others are accommodated but if you have political agendas and you are using refugees situation to have another agenda, of course, you will not come back because that would take away your plans of what you want to do. 

“But those who came back are safe but if you have your agendas then that’s your problem. But they are welcome and we will rehabilitate them should they decide to come home and we will integrate them into the system,” said Geingob.

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