Lusaka — Jose Pinto, a refugee for 33 years, can now call Zambia his permanent home after he and his family became the first former Angolan refugees to be granted permanent residency permits by Zambian authorities.
Zambia's Minister of Home Affairs, Edgar Lungu, granted the first three residency permits to Pinto, his wife and their daughter Filipa in a ceremony in the capital Lusaka on 18 December, witnessed by UNHCR and a delegation from the African Union, which supported the local integration process by donating US$100,000.
Mr. Pinto spoke of his great happiness, after years of traveling on a United Nations Conventional Travel Document and being asked by immigration officials when he was returning to Angola. He thanked UNHCR for paying for the permits and encouraged the Angolan government to continue providing passports to former Angolan refugees to facilitate their regularization.
"This is a very momentous day for me and my family. I want to thank the Zambian government for having made this possible for us to receive these permits after a long wait. Zambia is now my home. I have a family of five. The three of us, my daughter and my wife are the ones getting permits. The other two children are minors," he said.
"My fellow Angolans should now have hope that a solution, which seemed impossible, is now here. I hope this happiness I am feeling will extend to other Angolans here," said 55 year-old Pinto, an interpreter based in the Zambian capital, Lusaka.
The hand-over of the documents marked the launch of issuing the local integration permits to up to 10,000 former Angolan refugees who meet the criteria under immigration laws. The permit was issued to Pinto on the basis of his self-employment as an interpreter.
Angolans who qualify for local integration will be eligible for citizenship after a period varying with the type of residence permit but averaging 10 years. Those with one Angolan parent can apply immediately for citizenship.
Pinto recounted that he arrived in Zambia in 1979 from Benguela, making him a refugee for over 33 years. After first living in the refugee settlement Meheba, he later moved to the capital for college and decided to stay in Lusaka. Initially he did various small-scale businesses but found a niche providing interpretation services in Portuguese/English.
"I don't know any other country to call home," Pinto said when asked why he did not opt for voluntary repatriation now that there is peace in Angola. "I have lived here for over 30 years now and my children go to school here, a place they consider home."
Minister Lungu, who presided over the ceremony to present the permits, said his government had decided to grant various permits to 10,000 former Angolan refugees who meet the criteria under immigration laws.
"Under the Zambian local integration exercise, those Angolans who apply and meet the established criteria will be considered for local integration by the government by regularizing their stay in the country under Zambia's existing domestic immigration laws," said Minister Lungu.
The minister advised that the local integration process would last about three years. He thanked the African Union for its donation and appealed for international support to help the government and UNHCR implement projects that will improve the livelihoods of the locally integrated Angolans and their local Zambian hosts, which would foster co-existence and make local integration a success.
Zambia currently hosts 48,000 people of concern to UNHCR: 23,000 Angolans, 14,000 Congolese, and 11,000 mainly from Rwanda, Burundi and Somalia. The number has increased with the recent arrival of some 1,000 refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo.