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UNHCR prepares for Swaziland to take over all refugee services

News Stories, 9 October 2006

© ©UNHCR/P Rulashe
Refugees in Swaziland re-register this month, giving UNHCR a clear view of both the number of refugees and a profile of the skills they have to become self-sufficient.  

MALINDZA REFUGEE CAMP, Swaziland, October 9 (UNHCR) Nearly 30 years after UNHCR opened an office in the tiny mountain kingdom of Swaziland to help people fleeing apartheid in South Africa, the UN agency is preparing for the country to take sole responsibility for all refugee services.

Tiny Swaziland may not have imagined in 1978 it would end up providing protection to thousands of other refugees. But it met its responsibility, with the help of UNHCR, by converting the Malindza reception centre into a refugee camp accommodating at its peak some 8,000 Mozambicans fleeing their civil war.

Another camp was established in Ndzevane for 7,000 South African refugees of Swazi ethnic origin who were forced from the newly established KwaZulu homeland in South Africa. They were joined by more Mozambicans and by the mid-1980s Swaziland hosted some 20,000 refugees. But the collapse of apartheid and peace in Mozambique cleared the way for repatriation.

"With the changed political situation in both South Africa and Mozambique in the 1990s the number of refugees in Swaziland dropped significantly," said Abel Mbilinyi, UNHCR's deputy regional representative. "Through UNHCR several thousand South Africans and approximately 16,000 Mozambicans were repatriated from Swaziland, leading to the need for a review of UNHCR's presence."

The review led UNHCR to end its physical presence in 2001, leaving the main functions of protection to the government and assistance with CARITAS, UNHCR's main implementing partner. Since then, UNHCR support has come from its Pretoria office. A review of the number of refugees and asylum seekers still in Swaziland is encouraging further changes.

"The number of people in Malindza Refugee Camp dropped from a couple of hundred to several dozen, which lead to our request to the government of Swaziland to verify the number of refugees and asylum seekers in the country," said Mbilinyi. Swaziland this month launched a verification of all refugees and asylum seekers in the country.

"For us," said Mbilinyi, "the exercise also ensures that legal protection measures are put in place, such as the issuance of relevant identification documents to enable refugees to exercise their rights as well as to have correct statistics, given the fact that UNHCR has communicated to the government of Swaziland its intentions to exit the refugee programme by the end of 2008."

This development is not unique to Swaziland. UNHCR is talking with several governments in the region about plans to streamline or discontinue operations. For CARITAS the verification prepares them for the time when the refugee programme will be administered fully by the government and itself.

"What we envisage with the conclusion of the verification exercise would be to profile and extract a very current skills inventory of the refugees in the country, so that when we begin planning we would be talking about the kind of interventions that benefit the refugees most," said Reggie Magagula, the Caritas project coordinator. "This goes towards better planning for the future."

UNHCR's handover of the Swaziland's refugee programme will be a big adjustment for both refugees and government officials. UNHCR envisages its exit from the refugee programme will be a two-pronged exercise. First, UNHCR will hand over the Ndzevane Refugee Camp, which UNHCR and donor communities contributed for the use of South African and Mozambican refugees in the 1980s.

"The handover of Ndzevane will include in addition to physical facilities such as schools and a health centre now used by the communities in that area eight water tanks to store water and an ambulance donated to the government," said Mbilinyi. He believes this will be in six to 12 months.

The second stage, will be Malindza refugee camp. "Swaziland has informed UNHCR that it wishes to keep Malindza open for any refugee inflows that may occur in the future. We are keeping the health facility open as it benefits the local people and we still provide a little educational assistance for refugee children attending school in Malindza, though we are now encouraging parents to contribute more," said Mbilinyi.

Despite apprehension among some government officials, they are assuming more responsibility by streamlining services in Malindza. UNHCR has contributed to improving the infrastructure but wants those refugees who remain to understand that the UN refugee agency will be ending its assistance.

"Although UNHCR has contributed to improving the infrastructure of the camp, what we would like to stress to the government is that refugees should make the choice to be there, knowing that there'll be no further assistance from UNHCR, particularly after 2008," Mbilinyi said.

By Pumla Rulashe in Malindza Refugee Camp, Swaziland

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