Four years after a Cabinet directive to move Dzaleka Refugee Camp from Dowa to Karonga which could roughly cost about K6.5 billion, UNHCR has expressed reservations with the proposed site.
But the Government of Malawi has insisted that the relocation arrangement remains unchanged.
According to information Nation on Sunday has seen, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) cited lack of enough ground water and poor soil fertility as reasons militating against establishing a camp at Katili in Karonga.
In a presentation to the Parliamentary Committee on International Relations last September which Nation on Sunday has seen, UNHCR cites lack of enough water and poor soil fertility as setbacks to have the camp established at Katili.
According to a UNHCR report, Katili is only favourable for growing of cassava, describing the relocation plan as a waste of money and resources.
But in an e-mail response last week, UNHCR senior protection officer Lisa Quarshie said the organisation’s view came before a government commissioned assessment.
“The meeting with the Parliamentary Committee on International Relations took place before the government-led missions to conduct the water capacity and environmental impact assessment. Potable water and access to farming land is essential for the sustainability of any person, including refugees.
“The water capacity and environment impact assessments will guide UNHCR on whether to proceed with the relocation to Katili or request GoM [Government of Malawi] to identify alternative sites,” she said.
Quarshie also said UNHCR will advocate for basic amenities such as water and farming land to be available first before committing to support the relocation plan.
“UNHCR agreed to support interventions to decongest the camp and has advocated the relocation to a suitable alternative site using the settlement model. The settlement model offers refugees, asylum seekers and the host community opportunity to live within a community where there is access to land and other economic activities, offering opportunities for self-reliance of Persons of Concern (PoCs) and host communities through engagement in the economic sector, subsistence farming etc.
“This intention has, however, been challenged by the new location’s fragile resource base and carrying capacity if it is to be shared and sustainably used by both the host community and refugees. It is for this reason that both UNHCR and GoM agreed to undertake a more detailed water capacity and environmental impact assessment before a decision can be made on the population size that can be sustainably settled in Katili,” she said.
Capital Hill, however, argues that not all refugees depend on farming for survival and that government intends to tap water from Nyika Plateau in Rumphi to Karonga.
In 2014, Cabinet directed the relocation of Dzaleka Refugee Camp to Katili due to the camp’s growing population.
For the past two years, government mounted a community mobilisation campaign which included taking some community members and chiefs from Karonga to Dowa to appreciate the Dzaleka situation.
The campaign also came in the face of community resistance to the relocation project.
According to records, the planned relocation, estimated to cost over K6.5 billion, will be co-financed by government and UNHCR.
So far, the government of Malawi has only set aside K300 million in the current financial year, which brings about a deficit of K6.2 billion.
In an interview with Nation on Sunday, government insisted that it will not change its plans to move the camp to Karonga.
Commissioner for Refugees who is Principal Secretary for Ministry of Home Affairs Sam Madula said the need for fertile soil and adequate ground water are not pre-requites for the camp relocation.
“The decision to move the camp rests with the government of Malawi and not UNHCR. It was not UNHCR which decided the transfer of the camp but Malawi Government. And mind you the soil may be bad, but not everyone in the camp survives on farming. These people survive through so many means and about water we may consider tapping from Nyika Plateau,” he said.
Madula said government is ready to fund the transfer of the camp should the UN agency remain opposed to the idea.
Parliamentary Committee on International Relations feels that government should revisit its relocation plan based on preliminary findings of poor underground water and soil fertility.
Chairperson for the committee, who is also Kasungu West legislator Alex Major, wondered why government is keen to relocate the camp when it is clear that the site is not conducive to farming.
Major also expressed disappointment with the level of disorganisation government has displayed in handling the relocation plan by allocating K300 million in the national budget without consultations.
Meanwhile, Karonga communities continue protesting the relocation plan.
In a telephone interview, Karonga-Chitipa Cultural Heritage Foundation member Garnet Kamwambi said they remain opposed to having Katili as a new refugee camp.
“We know government has been luring people, including chiefs to accept the initiative on the pretext that the proposed site will be modernised–have more development. This is rubbish. Should development come to the area on condition of accepting a camp? These people are entitled to development without condition,” he said.
Asked about how they intend to approach the wave of protest from partners and community members, Madula allayed fears, saying it is interesting that while some people are protesting the move, the concerned communities in Katili are excited about the establishment of the camp.
“This is an area with bad soil and without enough water. And what if we start tapping water from Nyika, will the people of Katili not benefit? The camp will spur economic activities in the area and people will benefit,” added Madula.
Dzaleka was established in 1994 and was designed for a population of about 5 000 to 10 000, but now it is home to about 33 000 refugees and asylum seekers with DRC having the highest population of about 19 062 and the rest is shared among other nationalities such as Burundians, Rwandans and Ethiopians. n