Malnutrition is stalking Malawi’s only refugee camp, Dzaleka, after rations were slashed following funding cutbacks by the international donor community.
The UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR)Southern Africa spokesperson, Tina Ghelli, said that a humanitarian disaster is looming among the 24 000 refugees at the camp, which lies about 45km from Lilongwe.
“Children less than five years, child-headed households, the chronically ill, disabled persons, pregnant and lactating mothers, female-headed households and the elderly are feared to be on the brink of malnutrition. This could lead to an emergency situation if the nutrition indicators further deteriorate.” Ghelli said.
Some women are said to be engaging in “survival sex” to feed their children, while police report a general rise in anti-social behaviour.
Interviews with inmates and the camp’s management also revealed that chronically ill people have lost weight and are unable to comply with their drug regimes.
Sources in the aid community hinted that Malawi’s tough policy on refugees – they are not allowed to leave the camp to seek work, do business or farm – is fuelling the crisis.
Overcrowding is also an issue: Dzaleka served as a political prison during the one-party rule of former president Hastings Banda and was built to hold about 6 000 people.
Responding to amaBhungane’s questions, the government pledged to review laws that restrict the economic activities of refugees – but warned that this would take time.
A statement by the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) said that funding shortfalls have forced itto reduce rations and even suspend provision of some foodstuffs over the past six months.
The WFP said refugees are receiving 40% of their daily calorie requirements: 6.7kg of maize grain, 0.75kg of pulses and 2kg of fortified corn-soya flourper person per month.
The agency said that without additional funding, maize stocks, even at a half-ration, are set to run out in the middle of this month, while stocks of vegetable oil, pulses and Super Cereal are likely to be depleted by May.
WFP said US$2 million (R32-million) is needed to resume provision of full food rations for the next 12 months.
The Dzaleka refugee camp has hosted refugees for more than 15 years. Most refugees comefrom the Democratic Republic of Congo, but fugitives from conflicts in Ethiopia, Somalia and Rwandaare also present.
Ghelli said the inability of the refugees to support themselves over such a long period and donor fatigue had led funders to “divert their commitments”.
“Without the right to work or freedom of movement, the refugees are completely dependent on international aid.Some of the donors are tired of supporting these protracted refugee situations, leading to camps such as Dzaleka receiving less and less funding.”
Camp inmates fear for the worst if they are not allowed to earn additional income by working.
“The situation is really bad, we are starving,” said Prime Hakusweyezu, a Rwandan refugee who has been in the camp since 2010. “At the hospitals there is no medicine; if you get sick you’re just given painkillers.
“As refugees we have difficulties in finding money, so life is really tough with reduced rations. We are still waiting from WFP, UNHCR and government of Malawi to help us.”
Deputy camp director Hirare Namakwa called for urgent action, saying that “normally each person is supposed to receive at least 19.9kg of maize per month – three times what the refugees are getting now”.
The principal secretary in the ministry of home affairs, Beston Chisamile, said Malawi is currently using the 1989 Refugee Act, which adheres to the restrictive conventions of 1951.
Chisamile said: “We are working on reviewing this law so that we will lift some of the restrictions. This is a long process; we have to do a lot of consultations. We need to help our friends.”
Malawi is party to both the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, its 1967 Protocol, and the 1969 OAU Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa.
More recently, it ratified the 1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons. However, it is yet to accede to the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, which would enable refugees to seek gainful employment.
The current legal framework governing the rights of refugees has been broadened, but these rights are to some extent affected by the nine “reservations” Malawi includedin the 1951 Convention.
These restrict the rights of naturalisation, health, education, freedom of movement and economic activity.
Malawi is southern Africa’s most food-insecurestate, with some 2.8-million people currently estimated to be in need of food assistance.
- The M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism (amaBhungane) produced this story.