In our Joint Pastoral Statement to mark the country’s forty years of independence in 2004, “Looking to the Future with Hope”, the three Christian Church mother bodies noted that Zambia is correctly described as “an oasis of peace” and “for this reason Zambia has played host to hundreds of thousands of refugees from neighbouring countries … beset by civil strife.” We went on to say “we should celebrate the grace of having been spared from such extreme civil strife and also celebrate the opportunity we have been given to serve and give refuge to our brothers and sisters running from social and political instability.” ("Looking to the Future with Hope," paragraph 6). We also pointed out that while Zambia has been a “generous host” to refugees we were also aware that there is a tendency at present to become “unfriendly to the few refugees remaining in our country.” (Idem, at paragraph 27). Today, as we celebrate World Refugee Day, we, as the Church, wish to reflect further on the situation of refugees in our country.
First of all we are aware of the limitations imposed on refugees by our laws. The present Refugee Act dates back to 1970 and reflects an era of struggles for liberation from colonial powers which is thankfully long past. Thus it was that the government of the day restricted the refugees’ human right to freedom of movement within Zambia. It did this first by placing a reservation to the relevant provision of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees when it acceded to it, and, second, by requiring refugees to live in refugee camps in the 1970 law. While we acknowledge that reasons of security may require that newly arrived refugees be carefully controlled for a period of time so that, for example, former combatants be separated, or the freedom from undue influence of political forces be assured; certainly these considerations did not require that refugees, their children and, in some cases, their grandchildren –all born in Zambia—have their basic freedom of movement restricted for 35 years. We lament the fact that this is the present situation in Zambia with the result that many innocent refugees are arrested and detained for indefinite periods for minor violations of this regulation.
It is evident to us that the practice of imprisoning persons who have not been accused or convicted of any crime for an indefinite period of time violates a number of fundamental human rights that are guaranteed both by the Constitution of Zambia, regional and international treaties to which Zambia is a signatory. We note in particular that Articles 9, 11, and 12 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights --to which Zambia acceded without reservations or declarations in 1984 -- as well as Articles 2 and 12 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights are contrary to the current practice. It is also clear to us on moral grounds that a State may only use its power to arrest and detain where there is a prosecution envisioned.
We are aware as well of a further adverse consequence of arresting refugees and asylum seekers. It contributes to corruption of government officials. Many times refugees have come to us with tales or how they, or their family members, have been threatened with imprisonment unless they pay bribes to immigration or other law enforcement officials. We are encouraged by the present governments efforts to rid our country of corruption and would suggest that the predatory practices inflicted upon refugees provide yet another reason why all law enforcement officials be given and required to wear individually identifying badges or name tags when they are working.
We are saddened to note that while refugees are denied the opportunity to have access to the labour market and to self-employment opportunities, the international community is failing to provide adequate food to refugees in camps and settlements. We beseech all the stakeholders to put in place a system that would ensure the food security of all displaced people in Zambia.
One does not have to look far for evidence of the fact that refugees are increasingly unwelcome in Zambia. We have seen a disturbing rise in the verbal abuse, harassment, arbitrary detention, and physical violence that refugees suffer in Zambia. The church regrets the fact that people with genuine protection concerns have been forcibly returned from Zambia to countries where their lives or freedom are in jeopardy. Needless to say, this practice violates the human rights of refugees and does not reflect well on Zambia’s international image.
The status of being a refugee lasts for too long in Zambia. As we noted earlier, generations have been born in our refugee camps. At present there is no way in which the child of a Zambian mother and a refugee father can ever be anything but a refugee in our country. This is wrong. We believe that the gospel, which proclaims liberation to captives, requires that long-term refugees be allowed to integrate into our society as established residents. We feel that after a period of five years any refugee who has not been convicted of a crime should be accorded the status of an established resident and be allowed to move freely, live, work and attend school without the requirement of a permit. We are aware that the present government wishes to replace our outdated refugee law and applaud its efforts in this regard. We pray that any new refugee legislation enshrine the principle of local integration through a grant of residency and urge our lawmakers to ensure that the new refugee bill contains such a provision.
The Angolan refugees who have lived in our country for so long have never had the benefit of an offer of a permanent place among us. It is perhaps because of this reason that we see so many of them in the process of returning to Angola at the present time. We salute them and wish them well as they begin the arduous task of rebuilding our neighbouring State. At the same time, we are also cognizant of the fear expressed by many Rwandan refugees in our region. We are hopeful that the government of Zambia will continue to honour the essential voluntary nature of repatriation.
“Refugees - Ordinary People in Extra-ordinary Circumstances” is the theme selected for this years World Refugee Day. In this message we have chosen to highlight how our present laws and practices fail to treat refugees as “ordinary people”, that is, as people with basic human rights to move, work, live, and have a nationality. We urge the Zambian government to continue to address these concerns and put in place rules and practices consistent not only with the refugees’ rights as “ordinary people” but also as children of God.