• Text size Normal size text | Increase text size by 10% | Increase text size by 20% | Increase text size by 30%

Refugees Magazine Issue 97 (NGOs and UNHCR) - Bright spot in Africa

Refugees Magazine, 1 September 1994

UNHCR and its NGO partners in Swaziland recently said farewell to the final group of Mozambican refugees to return to their country.

By Gary Perkins

SEPTEMBER 1992

The image is a familiar one. There is a long line of people, mostly women and children waiting under a blue sky. At the far end of the line aid workers are handing out the daily ration of maize meal, with perhaps some powdered milk for the children. Looking at the scene you can almost feel the heat and the despair.

This is the image of the African refugee as conveyed nightly on television screens around the world. But it does not have to be like that. And it is not always the case, as I learned when I came to Swaziland in 1992.

I arrived feeling rather like a character in the Graham Green novel, "A Burnt Out Case." I had just spent two years working in Somalia. It was certainly a pleasure to negotiate with people who did not habitually carry an AK-47.

Swaziland is home to some 30,000 refugees, the vast majority of whom come from Mozambique. They arrive with almost nothing seeking a respite from the civil war in their own country. They find, however, the principal condition for human dignity peace and more often than not, courtesy and help. They also find queues, but they are mercifully short and they do move forward.

There are two principal settlement areas for refugees in Swaziland. The first is Ndzevane, which is a mixed settlement of South Africans and Mozambicans and is now closed for new arrivals. The second is Malindza, which has some 18,000 Mozambican refugees.

They are referred to as refugee camps, but they are in reality small towns which contain the largest primary schools in Swaziland. They are open settlements and the fence around Malindza is more to keep out the local cattle than keep in the refugees. Both camps have an "open-door policy" and many of the refugees work in the surrounding area.

New arrivals in Malindza are first given food. Generally, they report to police stations after they enter the country and are then transported to the camp by the police. Yes, Swazi police do have transport and a police station in Swaziland is a place where you go to receive help, not intimidation. The people are then interviewed and entered into the UNHCR database, which contains individual records on all of the 24,000 persons registered in the two camps.

Following a distribution of cooking utensils and clothing and blankets, their first night in Swaziland is spent in one of the "permanent tents" for new arrivals. And they talk; slowly at first, but with increasing animation as others gather round to hear news of events inside Mozambique or to search for relatives or friends.

The entire process of establishing themselves takes about six weeks. Each family is given 700 square metres of land. They first construct a pit latrine using an established design. It has a concrete floor and proper walls. Once this has been completed and inspected, they receive materials for the house which is built of wood from the abundant forests in Swaziland and with iron sheets for roofs.

The camp was designed to be a series of small villages, each containing about 200 people. It is not set out in a square grid pattern, but has lots of curves and green areas and playing fields. There are trees from a central nursery and the individual gardens can be impressive. There is a "Maputo," with 200 people, and a "Belavista." All the old names from home are there even though some of the refugees left their villages over eight years ago. As a refugee camp it succeeds admirably. As a small town in Swaziland, it is a bustling community. All in all, it feels good to be here.

JUNE 1994

The vast majority of the houses are empty, roofs are gone and the mud walls are beginning to crumble. The schools closed two months ago, and while the water points still provide clean water, there are only a few scattered individuals using them. There is still one shop which can provide an ice cold soft drink straight from the freezer. But the man who painted, "Thank you U.N. for giving us peace" on the wall of his store, and was thus greatly loved by UNHCR photographers, is gone.

A picture of despair? Not at all. For the last year, a well-organized repatriation has been taking place to Mozambique. Each week since October 1993, a passenger train has been leaving Swaziland carrying some 700 people home to Mozambique. The advantages of having a "repatriation train" are many. People travel in comfort and security and they can take almost everything they want. And they do take everything. Starting with a mythical 50 kilos per person, the refugees, intelligent people that they are, soon realized that we did not really mind the excess weight. Off came the roofs and the roof beams of their houses, and onto the train they went. After a certain amount of bureaucratic nervousness on the part of staff, we soon concluded that the more they took home, the more likely people were to resettle permanently. With each baggage car capable of carrying 25,000 kilos, weight was really not a problem. The last major advantage of using a train is very simple: the children love it.

And what about those of us who were left behind? That is the staff of UNHCR and the voluntary agencies. We are both happy and sad. Happy that with a lot of hard work and tremendous cooperation between the government, UNHCR, Lutheran World Federation, Caritas, the International Organization for Migration, Goal and many others, we managed to complete a very successful and decent repatriation. Happy that the refugees were so obviously glad to be going home. Sad that a very creative two years of our lives is over and that the weeds are starting to grow in the streets of Malindza and Ndzavane.

On 3 June 1994, at 10 a.m., the "Last Train from Mpaka" left for Mozambique carrying a combination of refugees, aid workers, dignitaries and press. There was much happiness and just a little sadness as the locomotive sounded its whistle and the last of the refugees headed down the tracks for home. All is not bleak in Africa.

Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 97 (1994)

• DONATE NOW •

 

• GET INVOLVED • • STAY INFORMED •

UNHCR country pages

Repatriation

UNHCR works with the country of origin and host countries to help refugees return home.

Partnership: An Operations Management Handbook for UNHCR's Partners (Revised Edition)

A practical guide for those working with UNHCR in protecting and assisting refugees.

Non-Governmental Organizations

A priority for us is to strengthen partnerships with non-governmental organizations.

UNHCR Figures

Annual budget reached a record US$4.3 billion in 2012.

UNHCR Statistical Online Population Database

Standardized data on UNHCR's population of concern at country, regional, and global levels.

Annual Consultations with NGOs

An important yearly forum.

2014 Annual Consultations with NGOs

The 2014 Annual Consultations with NGOs took place from 17 to 19 June 2014 at the International Conference Centre Geneva (ICCG). For further information, visit our website:

Yao Chen and UNHCR

Learn about Yao Chen's links with UNHCR.

Alek Wek and UNHCR

Learn about Alek Wek's links with UNHCR.

Yao Chen Biography

One of China's most popular actresses and one of the world's top micro-bloggers.

UNHCR and Partners Tackle Malnutrition in Mauritania Camp

The UN refugee agency has just renewed its appeal for funds to help meet the needs of tens of thousands of Malian refugees and almost 300,000 internally displaced people. The funding UNHCR is seeking is needed, among other things, for the provision of supplementary and therapeutic food and delivery of health care, including for those suffering from malnutrition. This is one of UNHCR's main concerns in the Mbera refugee camp in Mauritania, which hosts more than 70,000 Malians. A survey on nutrition conducted last January in the camp found that more than 13 per cent of refugee children aged under five suffer from acute malnutrition and more than 41 per cent from chronic malnutrition. Several measures have been taken to treat and prevent malnutrition, including distribution of nutritional supplements to babies and infants, organization of awareness sessions for mothers, increased access to health facilities, launch of a measles vaccination campaign and installation of better water and sanitation infrastructure. Additional funding is needed to improve the prevention and response mechanisms. UNHCR appealed last year for US$144 million for its Mali crisis operations in 2013, but has received only 32 per cent to date. The most urgent needs are food, shelter, sanitation, health care and education.

The photographs in this set were taken by Bechir Malum.

UNHCR and Partners Tackle Malnutrition in Mauritania Camp

UNHCR chief meets Malian refugees in Burkina Faso

On 1 August, UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres travelled to northern Burkina Faso with the United States' Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (BRPM), Anne Richard. In Damba camp, they met with Malian refugees who had fled northern Mali in the past six months to escape the ongoing conflict and political instability. To date, more than 250,000 Malian refugees have fled their homes and found refuge in neighbouring countries, including 107,000 in Burkina Faso alone. The UN refugee agency has only received one-third of the US$153 million it needs to provide life-saving assistance such as shelter, water, sanitation, health services, nutrition and protection to the refugees. UNHCR fears that the volatile political and humanitarian situation in Mali could lead to further outflows to neighbouring countries.

UNHCR chief meets Malian refugees in Burkina Faso

UNHCR Special Envoy Angelina Jolie meets with newly arrived Syrian refugees in Jordan

UNHCR Special Envoy Angelina Jolie traveled to Jordan's border with Syria on 18 June at the start of a visit to mark World Refugee Day. She met with refugees as they were arriving and listened to their stories of escape.She urged the international community to do more to help the survivors of the conflict and the countries hosting them. "The worst humanitarian crisis of the 21st century is unfolding in the Middle East today," she said."The international response to this crisis falls short of the vast scale of this human tragedy. Much more humanitarian aid is needed, and above all, a political settlement to this conflict must be found." The war in Syria forced more people to flee last year than any other conflict in the world. In the past six months, the number has more than doubled to 1.6 million, of whom 540,000 are in Jordan. During her visit to Jordan, Ms. Jolie will join the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, to meet with government officials and refugees.

UNHCR Special Envoy Angelina Jolie meets with newly arrived Syrian refugees in Jordan

Iraq: Angelina Jolie Visits Displaced IraqisPlay video

Iraq: Angelina Jolie Visits Displaced Iraqis

UNHCR Special Envoy Angelina Jolie recently visited internally displaced Iraqis living in an informal settlement and a formal camp at Khanke, near Dohuk. There, she heard dramatic stories of escape from the more than 20,000 Yazidis who fled Sinjar and surrounding areas last August.
Jordan: Living in the shadowsPlay video

Jordan: Living in the shadows

A new study by UNHCR has revealed that Syrian refugees living in Jordan are facing increasingly desperate conditions, with two-thirds now living below the national poverty line, as a result of the war and dwindling support from the international community.
UNHCR: Looking for Safe ShoresPlay video

UNHCR: Looking for Safe Shores

2014 has been a record year for movements by sea with desperate people take terrifying risks for the slimmest chance to reach safer lands.