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UNHCR Global Appeal 1999 - Regional Overview: Southern Africa


UNHCR Global Appeal 1999 - Regional Overview: Southern Africa

1 December 1998


From the 1960s until the early 1990s, Southern Africa experienced several large-scale refugee movements, primarily from countries within the region. The apartheid regime in South Africa, its illegal occupation of Namibia, the colonial independence struggles in Angola, Mozambique and Zimbabwe and, later, the civil conflicts which erupted in those countries all prompted mass population flight. Today, with the exception of one country (Zambia), the displaced population is primarily made up of asylum-seekers, a significant percentage of whom originate from countries outside the region, and refugees living in urban areas. Large numbers of refugees and asylum-seekers come from the countries of the Great Lakes region (Burundi, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo); from the Horn of Africa (Ethiopia, Somalia and the Sudan); and several West African countries. Asylum-seekers have also come from as far afield as Afghanistan, the former Yugoslavia and Russia. Although asylum-seekers have sought refugee status in all the countries of the region, many simply transit these countries en route to South Africa, in search of greater economic opportunities.

In some countries, Governments are becoming more and more restrictive towards asylum-seekers and refugees both in practice and through policies and legislation or regulations. In Botswana for instance, the Government's position is that asylum-seekers originating from countries outside the region will receive no consideration. This policy is so inflexible that for more than four years, the 60 asylum-seekers in the country have remained in a legal limbo. Negative public sentiments towards asylum-seekers and refugees, evident in South Africa, for example, also contribute to the problems faced by displaced persons.

Crime and HIV

The region as a whole is also facing declining social and economic conditions. In Zambia, for example, the value of the currency is declining, its national debt is soaring to over $ 7 billion, and inflation and unemployment are growing. Sixty-eight per cent of the population lives below the poverty line, while HIV/AIDS is taking its own grim toll (28.9 per cent of the urban population is HIV positive). Mortality rates are climbing as life expectancy is decreasing. In Zimbabwe, latest government figures show that 60 per cent of the population is afflicted by poverty and up to 3 million people are jobless. Lack of fiscal discipline is said to be rampant. As nationals suffer more and more hardship, political tensions and anti-foreigner sentiments also grow. Rising rates of serious crimes, which South Africa is experiencing, are often blamed on foreign elements. In that country, a few refugees and asylum-seekers have even been brutally murdered.

Those in need of protection and assistance

The refugees who benefit from the protection and assistance programmes of UNHCR can be grouped into two main categories: rural, camp-based refugees and urban refugees and asylum-seekers. Of the former, some 255,000 Angolan refugees are based in refugee camps and settlements in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Namibia and Zambia. There are nearly 20,000 refugees of varying nationalities who live dispersed in urban areas throughout the region. Country-by-country details are as follows:

Zambia hosts nearly 14,000 urban refugees. Some 3,500 of them, who live in Lusaka, benefit from activities directly aimed at self-reliance. Approximately 2,500 others only use UNHCR-assisted health services. Most urban refugees in Zambia come from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (72 per cent); but only 16 per cent of them receive assistance. Persons from Rwanda represent 11 per cent of urban refugees; 48 per cent of them received assistance in 1997. There are smaller numbers of urban refugees from Angola, Burundi and Somalia.

In Malawi, UNHCR is assisting nearly 1,000 refugees of various nationalities who are quartered in Dzaleka camp. Seventy-three per cent of them are women and children; a few others are elderly, physically handicapped or single mothers.

Zimbabwe hosts nearly 1,000 refugees and asylum-seekers, most originating from the countries in the Great Lakes region, Ethiopia, Somalia and West Africa.

UNHCR assists some 280 refugees and nearly 60 asylum-seekers in Botswana; 26 recognized refugees in Lesotho; 60 refugees recognized under the mandate of UNHCR in Madagascar; 500 refugees and asylum-seekers in Mozambique; and a similar number in Swaziland, the majority of whom come from countries in the Great Lakes. In Namibia, refugees of urban origin are accommodated together with refugees of rural background, mainly Angolans, at Osire Camp which houses some 2,500 refugees.

South Africa receives some 1,500 asylum-seekers per month. According to official statistics, nearly 40,000 asylum applications had been registered as of the end of 1997. Of these, only 3,847 had been approved; 6,586 had been rejected, 1,155 cancelled, 1,067 were found to have manifestly unfounded claims and another 1,067 were referred for further investigation. Processing and adjudication of asylum claims is one of UNHCR's most critical tasks in South Africa.

Full local integration is rarely achieved. In Zambia, only half of the refugee population can be said to be self-sufficient. Even then, education for their children, health and other services are still required. Persons with special needs, such as the chronically ill, unaccompanied minors and elderly refugees comprise as much as 15 per cent of any country's refugee population.

Main Objectives in the Region

UNHCR works to:

  • ensure that refugees are admitted into asylum, treated in accordance with established international protection standards, provided assistance and durable solutions through repatriation, local integration or resettlement;
  • provide care, maintenance and social and community services to refugees, including education, medical care and shelter;
  • provide social and legal counselling to asylum-seekers and refugees, encompassing refugee status and protection issues, and offer local integration and self-sufficiency initiatives to enable a productive life in exile;
  • support the self-sufficiency and local integration efforts of urban refugees by providing education, language and skills training, micro-credit, job integration and health activities;
  • assist Governments in refugee legislation enactment (South Africa) or reform (Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe and others) to reflect international protection principles, establish proper refugee management structures and create an enabling environment for refugees to attain self-sufficiency and effective local integration;
  • strengthen the relationships and cooperation with Governments, non-governmental organizations and refugee fora with the purpose of consolidating national commitments and capacities to uphold the right to seek asylum and enforce international refugee law and protection principles. Efforts to achieve this include lobbying government officials and others to promote the incorporation of international protection principles and standards into national legislation and eligibility procedures;
  • build the necessary capacities in Governments and civil society at large by offering training and advisory services, and other technical and material resources, to support and strengthen local institutions dedicated to providing protection, counselling, assistance and durable solutions to refugees and asylum-seekers. Ultimately, UNHCR expects to be able to hand over local integration assistance and counselling activities to local establishments;
  • raise awareness of refugee and human rights issues among decision-makers and civil society in general through advocacy and public education campaigns. The aim is to counter xenophobic tendencies, foster a refugee constituency among the general public, and influence the development and adoption of the most positive public policies on behalf of refugees; and
  • liaise with regional and other organizations, particularly the Southern African Development Community (SADC), to promote measures for the prevention of refugee displacements, influence positive refugee policies and promote solutions for refugees.

Protection and solutions

Though countries rarely refuse to admit refugees, some make it difficult for a refugee to be granted legal status. Botswana, for example, has denied refugee status to some persons who clearly merit it. In Mozambique, inordinate delays in deciding asylum applications amount to a de facto refusal to grant status. South Africa has an enormous backlog in asylum applications.

In all the countries of the region, refugees and asylum-seekers have been arrested and detained without charge or trial. Standards of treatment of refugees and asylum-seekers fall below international norms. Refugees are usually unable to find employment or are denied the opportunity to do so.

These problems often arise because there is no existing or adequate legal framework to protect refugees and asylum-seekers. But there are other reasons, too: insufficient resources; lack of knowledge or professionalism; lack of commitment towards refugees; corruption; and policies that undermine even positive legislation. The fact that some asylum-seekers and refugees have also shown a predilection to criminal and violent behaviour only contributes to Governments' willingness to resort to restrictive policies.


The Government in Malawi has so far made available 201 hectares of arable land to refugees for residential and agricultural activities to help them settle locally. Plots of land have been allocated to each family that has been granted asylum, and UNHCR will fund the purchase of agricultural supplies, tools and some shelter/construction materials to enable the refugees to provide for most, if not all, of their food needs after the first harvest. It is hoped that in April/May 1999, following a successful harvest, the provision of food rations could be discontinued.

With the help of local NGOs, refugees in the region, will be encouraged to participate in income-generating activities and micro-credit schemes. Organizations involved in small business activities will be asked to include refugees in established projects. Vocational skills and language training will be provided to those with no skills, as well as those requiring re-training so they can compete in the job market.


UNHCR will continue to provide support and guidance to regional refugee fora and NGOs with the goal of creating or improving the capacity of these institutions to provide counselling, assistance and durable solutions to refugees and asylum-seekers.

The agency will also provide training in refugee law and protection principles, programme delivery, social and legal counselling, and financial management and accountability to organizations that protect and assist refugees. Refugees, themselves, will continue to receive appropriate social and legal counselling.

Women and Children

As elsewhere in the world, women and children comprise the majority of the refugee populations. Women are usually less educated than men and are traditionally involved in small trades in addition to their domestic duties. The husband is usually the family's main income-earner. Women thus face difficulties when their spouses die or are unable to provide for the family. When a family cannot afford to pay for the education of all its children, boys are usually given preference. To compensate, women are given priority in UNHCR's activities and children are offered scholarships at primary and secondary levels.

In Zimbabwe, where only 34 per cent of refugees receiving assistance are women and children, UNHCR has set up a special women's club which offers skills training and group counselling. Sanitary pads are also provided to the women. Children receive books and toys and are eligible for pre-school, primary school and secondary school scholarships.


The only country in the region that has large-scale refugee camps or settlements is Zambia. Botswana, Namibia and Malawi each host small camps. In Malawi, the area surrounding the camp suffers from deforestation. Indigenous trees are not given time to regenerate; and the damage will be exacerbated when refugee families begin to settle locally and build their own houses and use firewood for cooking. UNHCR will launch a reforestation programme in which both refugees and the local population will plant trees around their houses.


Throughout the region, UNHCR works closely with its partners, particularly those organizations of the United Nations system. Accordingly, the agency participates in country-level structures established for coordination, such as meetings of United Nations representatives, country-level disaster management teams and working groups established to coordinate the United Nations system's activities. In Zambia, UNHCR participated in a UNFPA project on reproductive health peer education targeting urban refugees. Care has accepted some refugees in its own micro-credit programme.

Lessons Learned

In Malawi, it quickly became clear that the concept of self-support works best if introduced as soon as refugees arrive in the camp. An absence of a clear Government policy of self-reliance has resulted in long-term dependence for refugees in the country.


Further economic deterioration and restrictions placed on the economic rights of refugees would jeopardize the ability of refugees to become self-reliant. Economic misery can also lead to criminal behaviour: there have already been instances in which refugees have absconded with funds meant for income-generation and self-sufficiency projects.

The successful implementation of many of UNHCR's projects will depend on Governments' commitments to speed the process of determining eligibility and granting asylum to refugees.

Budget US$

CountryGeneral ProgrammesSpecial ProgrammesTotal
South Africa3,998,0001,606,4605,604,460
Other Countries**1,852,300164,5842,016,884

* Includes costs in Angola, while the budget presented on page 143 includes costs in Angola, asylum countries and at Headquarters.

** Includes costs in the Republic of the Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.