GABORONE, BOTSWANA – The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says it is concerned after Botswana deported 57 Zimbabwean refugees who had lived in the host country since 2008. The refugees reportedly failed to register for voluntary repatriation, which led to their forced removal late last week.
The UNHCR’s external relations officer, Kate Pond, says the refugees, irrespective of their status, have rights and could have been allowed to remain as permanent residents.
“UNHCR remains concerned that Zimbabweans who have been in Botswana for over a decade have been removed to Zimbabwe in less than voluntary circumstances. Irrespective of their status they still have certain rights, and UNHCR had aimed for alternative solutions, like those provided to Zimbabweans who have family links in Botswana and may be able to remain in the country as permanent residents,” Pond said.
One of the deported refugees, speaking on condition of anonymity, says they were rounded up Thursday and told to board a bus which took them to Zimbabwe’s border.
“We left Botswana on empty stomachs. We were deported to the border and we didn’t get any assistance. We wanted to remain in Botswana; that’s why we did not register [for repatriation]. We have nothing, we don’t know where to start. We had children going to school. It will be difficult without documents like passports and identity cards,” the refugee said.
The deportees had been living at the Dukwi refugee camp. Botswana’s government had warned that refugees who did not register would be deported.
Last month, Botswana sent back more than 200 other Zimbabweans who had registered for voluntary repatriation.
The repatriated refugees had initially refused to do so, citing fears of persecution in their homeland.
Most were opposition activists whose homes were burned down during a deadly presidential election campaign in 2008.
But one of the returnees, Bheki Weza, says they have surprisingly been well received in Zimbabwe despite their earlier safety concerns.
“We are very happy about the situation. As we speak, I am now home still trying to settle down and adjust to the difficult economic conditions here in Zimbabwe. But I am happy because there is still peace surrounding us. I have met with the chiefs and even met with people that we fought with before I left. So far so good,” Weza said.
The UNHCR says it will continue to assist refugees who were repatriated. Each person received $520 and a food package. But the agency says there will be no such assistance for the deported refugees.