In March, the Malawi government issued a directive ordering all refugees in the country living in urban or rural areas to relocate to the country’s already overcrowded Dzaleka Refugee Camp. Since then, authorities have forcibly relocated thousands to the camp, often detaining them temporarily in prison.
According to the 27 March directive, all refugees and asylum seekers in the country were ordered to voluntarily relocate to the Dzaleka camp by 14 April, or face enforced relocation. Since then, authorities–often with assistance from the military–have conducted roundups in which refugees have been arrested, their businesses closed, and entire families forcibly transferred to the camp.
According to Youth and Society (YAS), an NGO operating in the country, between May and 9 October, some 765 families totalling 2,296 refugees and asylum seekers had been forcibly moved to the camp. If fully executed, the government’s encampment policy could see 7,300 refugees being forced into Dzaleka.
Seeking to justify the relocations in a 22 May statement, the Parliament stated: “What some of the refugees were doing by freely wandering around and in certain cases operating businesses without permits, was a recipe for chaos and rendered our laws on refugees almost useless.”
The only official camp in Malawi, Dzaleka was reported to be accommodating more than 50,000. The majority of those in the camp are from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, and Rwanda.
In a press release issued by UNHCR, the refugee agency said: “Dzaleka refugee camp already faces challenges as health services, water, shelter and sanitation facilities are inadequate to serve the existing population. Relocating self-sufficient and productive refugees and asylum-seekers to Dzaleka will only exacerbate these problems as their prospects of rebuilding their lives will dwindle.” The agency urged Malawi to rescind its relocation policy.
As part of the government’s forced encampment policy, hundreds of refugees and asylum seekers have also been temporarily detained in prison before being moved to the camp. On one occasion on 17-18 May, 505 individuals were detained in Maula Prison in Lilongwe. According to YAS, this included at least 202 males, 89 females, and 112 children.
In a statement to the African Commission for Human Rights on 22 October, YAS noted that the refugees imprisoned in Maula “endured overcrowded conditions, physical abuse, lack of access to legal representation and family, detention without trial, and limited access to basic amenities such as food and menstrual pads.”
In June, Human Rights Watch also condemned the imprisonment of refugees–particularly that of children. They wrote: “Children should not be detained for immigration reasons, and should never be held in adult prisons, under international human rights standards.”
Conditions in Malawi’s prisons have regularly been criticised by international observers. In 2022, the UN Committee Against Torture noted that severe overcrowding persists in many of the country’s prisons, and that many lack adequate services including health care, food and water supplies, and sanitation.
The Government’s March statement was the latest in a series of attempts to enforce the encampment policy. In April 2021, the Ministry of Homeland Security ordered all refugees and asylum seekers living and working outside Dzaleka to return to the camp. Although the Supreme Court issued an injunction preventing authorities from enforcing such a return, in August 2022 the High Court of Blantyre vacated this injunction. Refugees living in rural areas were ordered to move to the camp by November 2022, and those in urban areas by February 2023. The March 2023 directive extended this deadline to April 2023.