HARARE – Tucked in the arid parts of the south east Lowveld, away from the public glare, refugees from elsewhere on the continent trickle into Tongogara Refugee Camp — an overcrowded cantonment in Manicaland Province.
The majority of children living in this camp cannot go to school while the girl child cannot access basics such as sanitary wear, something considered a luxury in this home away from home.
Many high-ranking government officials have visited the camp and forgotten about it once they got back to their spacious offices.
Government, which should be fronting efforts to fund the camp, has its own problems. Its hands are full.
The camp, which is home to, mostly, refugees who flee from instability in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Mozambique, among other countries, houses over 9 000 people.
Although the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) often steps in to assist the ever-increasing population of refugees, its intervention signifies a drop in the ocean and cannot take care of the camp’s infrastructural requirements such as roads and safe drinking water.
The list of problems faced by Tongogara refugees is long.
A report by the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Labour and Social Welfare has revealed in shocking detail what it really means to be a refugee there.
According to the committee’s findings, the cash-strapped government is failing to step in, leaving refugees to endure the squalor.
“Refugees experience challenges in accessing adequate basic needs such as food, soap and sanitary pads. Tongogara Refugee Camp is overcrowded, with a population of 9 062 refugees at the time of the committee’s visit.
“The environment at Tongogara Refugee Camp was dirty.
“The committee learnt that the ministry of Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare was hampered from effectively administering the refugees’ welfare programme by financial resource challenges, including planning and achieving set goals,” reads part of the committee’s report.
It said a poor road network to Tongogara camp was a major constraining factor, especially during the rainy season.
Furthermore, the committee learnt that there were no Advanced Level classrooms at the nearby St Michael Secondary School, resulting in children failing to attend school.
“The entry of refugees from Mozambique in December 2016 into Tongogara camp increased the demand for agricultural land.
“The committee was informed that available land could only accommodate 470 individuals out of a community of 9 062 people,” the report revealed.
The ruling Frelimo and opposition Renamo in Mozambique often engage in heavy exchange of gunfire, which results in the displacement of people in areas where confrontations take place.
According to the committee, the Tongogara Refugee Camp population relies on unarmed security guards and four police officers for security.
It said the ministry of Labour and Social Welfare, in collaboration with the ministry of Home Affairs and Culture, should reinforce security through the erection of an electric fence to prevent entry of stray animals from the Devure Game Range and increasing the number of police officers to at least 10 respectively by October 2018.
The report further says refugees are experiencing difficulties in accessing birth certificates for children born in Zimbabwe.
“The ministry of Labour and Social Welfare should continuously assess refugees for resettlement to third countries and individuals who can afford to rent accommodation elsewhere should be moved out of Tongogara camp in order to reduce overcrowding.
“The ministry should also move out refugees who inter-married with locals from the camp by October 2018.
“The Registrar-General should grant residence permits renewable every five years to refugees who consistently stay in the country to enable them to live outside the camp in order to reduce the population at Tongogara Refugee camp,” it said.
Tongogara Refugee camp was established soon after Zimbabwe’s independence in 1981 and is located 550 kilometres southeast of Harare.
In 1995, Zimbabwean government repatriated all the Mozambicans, back to their country after peace had been restored.
The camp was re-opened in 1998 after the country started to receive a high number of asylum seekers from other parts of Africa.
Meanwhile, the committee also revealed challenges at Waterfalls Referral Centre where refugees are also facing difficulties in accessing basic commodities.
The committee said the centre was in need of basic maintenance as grass and fallen trees were scattered all over the place.
The lack of vehicles to transport sick persons to hospitals for doctor-patient appointments was also highlighted to be a challenge at the camp, which used to be a transit camp where refugees were vetted before movement to Tongogara Camp.
It was later transformed into temporary accommodation for refugees seeking specialist medical services in Harare and those awaiting resettlement to third countries or repatriation.
During its visit to the camp, members of the committee were shown several blocks accommodating refugees.
Each family is allocated a single room while ablution facilities are shared per block.
“The committee was informed that refugees sometimes received baskets without some basic items, such as soap and had at one time gone for three months without receiving any allocations.
“Furthermore, women and girls staying at the Centre receive two packets of sanitary pads every three months,” the report said.
“The committee was informed that monthly electricity charges for Waterfalls referral centre were classified as commercial rates which made it unaffordable for the ministry of Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare to provide refugees at the Centre with power for domestic uses such as cooking and lighting.”