By Magreth Nunuhe, Nicholas Mokwena & Lahja Nashuuta
Windhoek/Gaborone - Controversy is thickening in the return of Namibian refugees in Botswana, as the deadline for their repatriation back home draws near.
The refugees at Dukwi Camp have until July 11, 2018, to return to Namibia, but the latest information reveals that some of them refuse to sign up for voluntary repatriation.
This comes after 12 of their colleagues were arrested last week Tuesday in Gaborone’s central business district when they went to present a petition to the Southern African Development Community (SADC) on behalf of the others at the camp.
The group of refugees is now using the repatriation back to Namibia, as grounds to force the Namibian government to open negotiations, which would allow them to secede the Caprivi region (now the Zambezi region) from Namibia.
The impasse has spilt over into Namibia, where this week the police had to abruptly stop a media briefing by a group calling itself the Caprivi Concerned Group, which is supporting the Dukwi refugees’ refusal to return to Namibia.
Edwin Samati, who is the secretary-general of the Caprivi Concerned Group, said police ordered them to leave the briefing venue within five minutes but provided no reasons for disrupting the gathering. Samati also issued a media statement, where he warned that his group cannot rule out the possibility of “political fire” in Namibia again, which might be more severe than that of August 2, 1999, if Namibian refugees based in Botswana are forced back home “where their human and political rights are curtailed or absent”.
Samati added that “the best way to prevent war is to remove any conditions which may be a cause of political frustration, such conditions include violent suppression of political opinions and rights”.
The Caprivi Concerned Group said it has been carefully observing events in Botswana and Namibia, which they allege are meant to frustrate the United Democratic Party and its people.
The Namibian Police Force chief, Sebastian Ndeitunga, has defended his decision to stop the said media briefing because the group was behaving in a manner that is not compatible with the Namibian Constitution. “They want to dismember Namibia,” the police chief said.
Back in Botswana, the arrested group was held at the Molepolole Centre for Illegal Immigrants and have been transferred to the Francistown Centre for Illegal Immigrants (FCII) where they are currently detained.
There are claims that officials at FCII and Dukwe Camp are reluctant to release the detained Namibians back into the camp for fear they might incite others not to sign for voluntary repatriation pending SADC’s intervention.
It is alleged that SADC is considering the request for intervention. About 900 Namibians remain at the camp, most of whom call themselves Caprivians.
Over 3,000 Namibian refugees have been repatriated since 2000 and now live as ordinary citizens without being persecuted.
Last week, the Dukwi refugees made it clear that their refusal to return to Namibia was a political one.
They stated in their petition to SADC that they would only return home if the Namibian government unbans the United Democratic Party (UDP), which is led by the exiled leader of the separatist movement in the former Caprivi region, Mishake Muyongo.
UDP formed a military wing, the Caprivi Liberation Army, which carried out deadly secessionist attacks at Katima Mulilo on August 2, 1999.
In an interview at FCII, Felix Kakula, representing the refugees, said no one is communicating anything to them. He explained that they have been detained since last week following their arrest.
Kakula further stated that SADC has also not responded to their fears that the deadline for the repatriation is drawing near.
“It is true that some people are refusing to sign for voluntary repatriation. The only reason is what we have already communicated to SADC. This is a political situation that needs political intervention,” Kakula said, adding that the refugees maintain that they will not return to Namibia until their terms are met. He also said the group of 12 has been detained because authorities fear they might influence more people from participating in the repatriation process.
He revealed that they are currently working with the Botswana Council of Churches, who are facilitating, through a lawyer, their release from detention.
The council has called on President Mokgweetsi Masisi to reconsider the July 11 deadline to ensure that the refugees’ repatriation is within the spirit of safety and peaceful settlement of all returnees, with particular reference to the issue of security clearance of the 16 political leaders.
The council has since engaged a lawyer to assist with the release of the 12 refugees from the FCII.
UNHCR Chief of Mission in Botswana, Arvind Gupta, said there is nothing they could do regarding the detained Namibians because at the time of their arrest they were no longer recognized as refugees.
“Their stay in the Dukwi Camp is for us to assist with facilitation for their repatriation back to their country following the declaration of the cessation clause. Botswana has enforced a cessation clause with respect to the status of Namibian refugees living at Dukwi, which was invoked in 2015.
“So, if they leave the camp, the Botswana government has the right to enforce any law that is applicable because their refugee status does not exist anymore,” he stated.
The Botswana government has remained mum since the petition and the arrest of the refugees.
SADC head of Regional Early Warning Centre and representative of the Namibian government, Habib Kambanga, who received the petition, said this week he could not comment on the matter because at the time he received the petition, he was just acting as the relevant officer was out of the country.
Kambanga stated that all he knows is that a letter has been submitted to both the Namibian and Botswana governments requesting for bilateral talks on the matter.
“Currently, I do not know the status of the matter because after the drafting of the letter, I also travelled out of Botswana. As SADC, we want the matter resolved,” said Kambanga referring further inquiries to Dr Malepang, the director for the SADC Organ on Politics, Defence and Security.
Dr Malepang also referred the matter to SADC Head of Public Relations, Barbara Lopi, who was not available for comment.
Botswana’s Minister of Defence Justice and Security, Shaw Kgathi, revealed that the Namibian President had, this week, sent a delegation to Dukwi Camp to talk to the refugees. The Namibian delegation consists of three ministers and traditional leaders to speak to Namibians at the camp.
But the Namibian Commissioner for Refugees in the Ministry of Home Affairs and Immigration, Likius Valombola, said they have no communication about Namibians detained in Botswana and were only aware of the 910 refugees who have been cleared “as per current communique”.
“We do not know about UDP members and we do not know that there are still activities going on, unless they reactivated. We cannot dwell on that,” he said, adding that the Namibian government’s position is to welcome the refugees with open arms and that there was no point in them continuing to live like refugees in Botswana.
Valombola said his government is prepared to receive its citizens in safety and dignity and that upon registration for voluntary repatriation, they would be issued with repatriation packages such as building materials and national documents for those who do not have.
According to Valombola, the returnees would be treated like the others who have already been repatriated by engaging local stakeholders for resettlement and re-integration purposes back to their various communities.
“They will participate in the socio-economic development programmes available in their constituencies and communities without any discrimination or persecution. With regard to school going population, they will definitely be admitted in their respective levels of schooling,” said Valombola.
As per the Tripartite Commission agreement, the UNHCR will give a voluntary repatriation package, which includes money and food for three months, while also monitoring and supervising the voluntary repatriation from the country of asylum to the country of origin.
Valombola warned that those who fail to register for voluntary repatriation would, unfortunately, forfeit the repatriation packages. He added that those who were not cleared by the Tripartite Commission should write a letter to the President of Namibia, Hage Geingob, indicating their circumstances and their intent to return to Namibia.
* (Article was written in collaboration with the Botswana Guardian)