UNHCR fits Malawi's refugees into one camp

News Stories, 8 November 2007

© UNHCR/J.Redden
Listen and Learn. Class sizes have grown sharply because of the closing of Luwena refugee camp and the consolidation of all Malawi's refugees and asylum seekers at Dzaleka camp.

DZALEKA REFUGEE CAMP, Malawi, November 8 (UNHCR) The children filing into the classroom at Dzaleka Refugee Camp occupy all the seats, then overflow onto the floor at the feet of their teacher. Outside, three large tents shelter other classes as workers busily erect four more classrooms.

The school's population has abruptly risen this year from 1,200 to 1,700 students with the government's decision to close Malawi's other refugee camp. The last of 3,000 residents of Luwani, located in the south of the country, arrived in the centre of the country at Dzaleka at the end of October.

The unexpected consolidation into one camp near the capital, Lilongwe, forced UNHCR into a crash programme to increase the capacity of Dzaleka, which has swelled from about 5,000 refugees and asylum seekers to more than 8,000.

The camp clinic will benefit from the opening of a maternity wing, which was started well before the current needs increased. But the medical service, which treats Malawians as well as camp residents, has seen surging demands. While staff from Luwani including the ambulance driver, with his vehicle are to be transferred to Dzaleka, there is no place for them to live.

"The area is now congested with patients from morning to afternoon," said the head of the clinic.

The school has seen class sizes rise abruptly, with those in the lowest grades containing more than 100 children despite running two shifts a day. Classes for the higher grades often hold 70 or 80 children, although they have held down the size of the Grade Eight classes, the highest in the school, to about 45 students.

"The shortage of classrooms is the biggest problem. There are up to 120 in a class," said Headmaster Augustine Chipula, whose school is run by the Jesuit Refugee Services for UNHCR and has obtained the best graduation results in the district.

The number of students is likely to rise again when the new academic year starts in January because some 250 students who were enrolled in Luwani have not resumed classes in Dzaleka, possibly because they were initially busy helping build new homes.

Housing, of course, is the most urgent need. Those moving from Luwani, who arrived in convoys over the space of several months, were allocated individual plots with the foundations of a house.

Refugees and asylum seekers receive the material needed to complete their houses: grass and poles for the roof and moulds to shape sun-dried mud bricks for the walls. The clouds are thickening and those in the last convoy from Luwani have little time to complete their homes before the rainy season.

UNHCR provides finished houses to vulnerable individuals, but the work is not complete. While Ruth Mya, a 20-year-old single woman from Kenya, has been plastering the inside walls of the mud house she received, she is awaiting repairs to the hole in the plastic under the grass roof. She worries about the lack of a lock on the door and a window blocked only by a piece of cloth.

But the problems of accommodating those moving from Luwani are temporary. The longer-term implications are more serious. Hopes that at least some of those in remote Luwani could become self-sufficient through agriculture have been replaced by the limited prospects in Dzaleka.

The government of Malawi does not let refugees or asylum seekers take jobs in the country, leaving a small amount of tomato gardening at Dzaleka as their main legal source of income. But the new houses are rising amid the furrows of limited farmland that is no longer available.

UNHCR seeks to find a lasting solution for refugees by repatriation, local integration or resettlement to another country. Almost no refugees have chosen to go home from Malawi in recent years, the government rules out local integration and resettlement is available in relatively few cases. This raises the prospect that most refugees in Malawi will rely on UNHCR for a long time.

And with Dzaleka's population now building to the edges of the camp, there is the fear of what would happen if there is a fresh influx of refugees. Although the vast majority of arrivals in Malawi Ethiopians and Somalis quickly disappear toward South Africa, there is a steady trickle of asylum seekers who stay.

"We can't be complacent about the carrying capacity of this camp," said Henry Domzalski, UNHCR's representative in Malawi. "We must be clear about what the situation is so we don't suddenly discover it's full."

In the first half of this year, more than 300 new asylum seekers arrived from Rwanda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo the same nationalities that already make up most of Malawi's refugee population. New arrivals previously were taken to Luwani on the grounds that Dzaleka was full, but since the closure order was issued in April new asylum seekers have been heading to the increasingly crowded facilities of Dzaleka.

By Jack Redden in Dzaleka Refugee Camp, Malawi