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Luwani Refugee Camp in Malawi closes as UNHCR moves last residents

News Stories, 26 October 2007

© UNHCR/J.Redden
Refugees like this tailor have now left their longtime home in Luwani Refugee Camp.

LUWANI REFUGEE CAMP, Malawi, 26 October (UNHCR) One of Malawi's two refugee camps officially closed on Thursday as a 32-vehicle UNHCR convoy pulled out soon after dawn with the last 660 refugees and asylum seekers, heading north to the country's remaining refugee camp.

"As of today, Luwani Refugee Camp is officially closed. We have the last of the residents on the trucks and have taken all of the UNHCR assets," said Kelvin Sentala, a UNHCR protection field assistant based in the capital, Lilongwe, who was in charge of the convoy.

The convoy 16 trucks of luggage, nine with refugees and asylum seekers, an ambulance, a bus with 27 vulnerable individuals, two pickup trucks and two UNHCR escorting vehicles was timed to arrive in Dzaleka camp just before dark. The relocated refugees and asylum seekers will live in tents while building their new homes with material provided by UNHCR.

UNHCR provides food on the night of arrival, but the next morning refugees and asylum seekers were expected to use their own food, which was moved along with all their other belongings. The convoy on Thursday included the refugees' 120 goats, 45 pigs and 160 chickens.

The final movement to Dzaleka Refugee Camp, just north of the capital, brings to some 3,,000 the number of refugees and asylum seekers who have been moved since the government decided last April to close Luwani. Dzaleka held more than 5,000 refugees and asylum seekers before the decision, so extra facilities are being added for the new total of more than 8,000 residents.

The closing of the camp, ordered by the government on what it termed security grounds, has both positive and negative aspects. The consolidation of the population into one site near the capital will make UNHCR's provision of services easier. However, there will be no land available for agriculture at Dzaleka unlike Luwani where an irrigation project still under development could have made some refugees self-sufficient.

"The Government of Malawi in keeping with its reservations to the 1951 Convention regarding freedom of movement, work rights and naturalization is not allowing refugees to locally integrate," said Henry Domzalski, UNHCR's acting Representative in Malawi. "Dzaleka therefore remains a place where care and maintenance food, shelter, health services, etc. could well continue indefinitely, if the refugees do not voluntarily repatriate or are not resettled."

The closure of the camp and a reception centre near the border with Tanzania in the north came after increasing frustration by the government at the number of young men, mainly from Ethiopia and Somalia, who applied for asylum on arrival but then disappeared. They were thought to be heading toward South Africa, the continent's economic powerhouse, and many were caught illegally leaving across Malawi's southern border.

The problem of distinguishing economic migrants heading to South Africa for work, and refugees fleeing persecution in their own countries, was underlined by the final movement from Luwani.

"We were supposed to transport 810 people to Dzaleka today but 127 people had disappeared. They were all asylum seekers from Somalia and Ethiopia," said Sentala. "This is the reason the Government decided to close Luwani. They were abusing the asylum system."

The April decision to close Luwani necessitated a quick expansion of the facilities in Dzaleka, which are not yet complete. The school in Dzaleka, which had achieved the best results in the district, will temporarily have to hold some classes in tents.

The buildings in Luwani were handed over to the Government, completing another cycle in the history of the rural location. It was used to house refugees fleeing the civil war in Mozambique, closed after they returned and then reopened by the Government for the influx of refugees from the Great Lakes area in recent years.

UNHCR recorded 9,188 refugees and asylum seekers in Malawi at the end of last March, including 1,389 who were living in urban areas. Of those in the two camps at the time, 3,300 were from Rwanda, 1,807 from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and 1,553 from Burundi.

With Malawi currently not permitting the local integration of refugees, UNHCR has looked for other solutions. Few have wanted to go home and for those who can neither repatriate nor locally integrate, UNHCR has aided resettlement to third countries. In 2006, some 500 refugees were resettled to Australia, Canada, Norway, and Sweden. So far in 2007 44 people have been resettled in Australia.

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