The Malawian government has ordered thousands of long-distance refugees to return to their own, but densely populated, a dangerous practice that many have vowed to deny.
The UN estimates that there are about 2,000 refugees living outside the camp in Dzaleka, about 40 kilometers (30 miles) north of the capital Lilongwe.
Many have lived there for years, starting a business in the town or marrying Malawians and having children.
But the government says it could be a threat to national security and live among ordinary people.
“We are not evicting them, and we just want them to stay where they are supposed to be,” Homeland Security Minister Richard Chimwendo told AFP.
“Those who own businesses… will have to work from Dzaleka.”
If they are married they should apply for permanent residency “instead of just” filling the whole country “.
“We are not sending them to their countries,” he said.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Malawi said the law was in line with the country’s laws, but advised the government to reconsider.
According to a legal agreement received from the Ministry of Homeland Security, the ruling was based on “security concerns to protect refugees and their communities in the face of the Cabo Delgado crisis in Mozambique”.
But Chimwendo said the idea of refugees fleeing was not in line with terrorists approaching northern Mozambique, where armed groups have been destroying for more than three years.
With between 10,000 and 14,000 refugees around 1994, the camp now has 49,386 people and several hundred continue to arrive each month, according to the UNHCR.
‘We’re not free’
The last day for the refugees to return to camp was on April 28, but the final court order gave them some relief.
Jean Minani, a long-time refugee from Burundi who lives outside the camp, is one of many who have rejected the order.
Speaking in one of Malawi’s largest languages, Chichewa, he told AFP that he had secured security in the southern African country 13 years ago, eventually setting up a small business, a grocery store.
Like many asylum seekers, Minani sees the return to Dzaleka as unthinkable for him and his family after a successful connection to their community.
“We are not safe” with the idea, said Minani, expressing fear of catching COVID-19 in a crowded camp.
They also feared that the move would disrupt their children’s education while they were taking the test, and that they would reduce their monthly salary, up to $ 5 (four euros).
Kanamula John, who represents Rwandan refugees in the camp, was also affected by the overcrowding.
“Some of us were married to Malawian women while some Malawian men married refugees. We don’t know what will happen to our children, ”said John.
The ministry acknowledged that there was not enough space in the camp, but promised “we will see how we can address this.”
Burundian national Ntizo Muheba, who arrived in Malawi in 2005, has returned to camp but is short of accommodation due to lack of accommodation.
“I have four children, and it’s hard to live like this,” she said.
About 62% of refugees are from the Democratic Republic of Congo, 23% from Burundi, 14% from Rwanda and the rest are from Somalia and Ethiopia.
Congolese refugee John Muhirwa called on the government to “pay and allow us to stay outside the camp so that our children can return to school. We were living in peace with the local people”.
Human rights groups have urged the government to respect refugees and protect them financially.
“We do not want to see incidents that people will use to plunder or destroy refugees’ property,” said Gift Trapence, chairman of the Human Rights Defenders Coalition.
While the UNHCR acknowledged that the government had good reason to order the evacuation, it warned of “serious right-wing problems”.
In response to an email to AFP, it said schools would be full and water would be stretched as well as hospitals.
Meanwhile, Malawi has been pushing for a court trial, the latest in a series of legal cases between the government and refugees since 2016.