My name is Innocent Magambi Founder of “There is Hope”, a Malawian NGO that serves Malawians from Dowa District, together with residents of Dzaleka Refugee Camp. The open letter to President Peter Mutharika by Mr. Kamwembe (Advisor to Northern Region Development Association) and a Number of other recent articles on the issue of refugees in Malawi have caused me great concern. These writings are often stripped of facts and isolated from any context.
I was born in a refugee settlement in DR Congo to Burundian parents who had been displaced by the 1972 genocide. I was then displaced by the 1996 war in DR Congo. So I have known the despair, fear and hopelessness which truly motivate people to seek security in another land. After spending 27 years as a refugee I was offered the opportunity to study in Malawi, and my life changed forever. Since then, I have strived to benefit both Malawians and refugees through my work.
Although Malawi is receiving refugees, it is not shouldering the weight alone. Today Malawi hosts 1 refugee in every 599 citizens, but in Burundi there is 1 Congolese refugee per 193 Burundians. In DR Congo the ratio goes down to 175 to 1 and finally, Uganda the figure is 1 refugee per 33 citizens. We might further consider that 1 out of 10 people in South Africa is estimated to be Malawian – according to AfricaCheck.org.
The Great Lakes region of Africa does not make the headlines as much as it used to, but daily life consist of unreported fighting, and institutionalized human rights abuse. Usually these are motivated by ethnic/political affiliation or violent suppression of freedom of expression. The rumour that refugees are a security threat to any country is a common rhetoric used to divert attention away from internal causes of crime. According to prisonstudies.org, the non-Malawian prison population in 2016 was 0.2% of all inmates. The argument that refugees hold guns is simply not a fact.
When a person is uprooted from the safety net provided by extended family, government subsidies, or the charity of neighbours, having lost all they have a refugee will use every bit of their energy in the search for survival. This explains why there are hundreds of thriving small-businesses in Dzaleka and its residents are among the large producers of potatoes supplied in Lilongwe. Moreover, the meagre food ration that the UN strives to give each refugee per month is not enough, sometimes the 13.5 kg of maize is halved due to the global Refugee crisis that has caused donor fatigue, hence refugees must be creative in their coping mechanism.
Yes: slave trade, colonization, exploitation have affected us deeply, however we cannot hold onto these wounds for more than five decades of independence and expect to develop. Similarly, we must not attribute our misery to foreigners and fail to see the part we need to play in bringing about change. A lot of the pain we suffer in Africa is tragically self-inflicted. Power-hunger, corruption and resistance towards embracing cooperation with our regional relatives are causing us to miss out on great economic and human potential. Though our continent is considered the richest in terms of natural resources, we have remained an economic prey of our “distant cousins” who are united. We are described as poor, yet we made everyone rich.
At There is Hope we desire to make facts and information about refugees better known to all. Our aspiration for Malawi is a strong and healthy economic development which includes refugees as tax-paying, legally approved workers. In 2006 Uganda introduced new laws allowing refugees freedom of movement, a plot of land to farm on and access to social/health care. This move was justified by a recent study from Oxford University. It showed that refugees in Uganda benefit the national economy by trading with and employing Ugandan residents. I strongly disagree that refugees are a burden on society. I see them as a resource which can help Malawi prosper in the coming years and generations.
If indeed Chewa people originated in DRC, there is no valid reason Malawi should resist integrating Congolese Refugees among their long lost but found relatives in Malawi.
- Innocent Magambi is founder and director of ‘There is Hope’, a Malawian NGO that serves Malawians and refugees at Dzaleka Refugee Camp in Dowa District.