Botswana's authorities should not force any of the Caprivi refugees to return to their home country Namibia, if a real risk remains that they would face persecution or other serious human rights violations, Amnesty International said as the deadline for their voluntary repatriation expired today.
More than 900 refugees, including at least 400 children who have never lived in Namibia, have been left in limbo after they were told by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) that they would no longer receive services such as food rations and access to medical treatment at the Dukwi Refugee Camp where they have been living for almost two decades.
"These men, women and children should not be forced to return home if their personal safety cannot be guaranteed," said Muleya Mwananyanda, Amnesty International's Deputy Director for Southern Africa.
"A lot is at stake here, if the government of Botswana forces people to return to Namibia where they may face human rights violations, it will be breaching its international and national obligations under law."
This is not the first time Botswana has tried to repatriate refugees. In 2015, the Botswana government announced that it had revoked the refugee status of Namibians. Later in January 2016, the Botswana High Court ruled that Namibian refugees should not be repatriated until a legal case brought against the revocation order had been decided. This judgement was upheld on appeal in March 2016 on the grounds that the Ministry of Defense, Justice and Security had an obligation to ensure the safe return of the applicants.
Amnesty International visited Botswana last month and spoke to some of the refugees. They expressed fear and anxiety after the government took away their refugee status without any support if they choose to repatriate to Namibia. The refugees told the organization that the situation leaves them in a precarious position.
Facing an uncertain future
Some of the people have expressed their fears about their future in Botswana. One refugee, who arrived in the country in 1998 told Amnesty International that: "Now the situation is terrifying. We don't know what will happen to us. Our kids won't be able to go to school. 99% of the children are born here, they are Batswana by birth."
Another refugee has accused the government of Botswana of abandoning them. He told Amnesty International that: "The Botswana government is pushing us. We are in a situation where we don't know where to go."
Amnesty International is also aware of another 16 former refugees, part of the initial group to flee the country, who have not received clearance from the Namibian government to return. This means that if they go back to Namibia they will be "illegal immigrants" and will be detained in the Francistown Centre for Illegal Immigrants, and their future becomes uncertain. Amnesty International is concerned that this may result in statelessness, as well as the separation of families.
"Botswana has an obligation protect and fulfil the human rights of every person who is in its territory. The government cannot ignore people who have nowhere to go to," said Muleya Mwananyanda.
The Botswana authorities must ensure the dignity and safety of anyone who chooses to return to Namibia. They should be given full information on their documentation.
Thousands of people have fled the Zambezi region (formerly the Caprivi strip) in Namibia since 1998 fleeing persecution following political tension between the government and the secessionist group, the Caprivi Liberation Army (CLA). The tension escalated with an armed attack launched by the CLA on government forces and buildings on 2 August 1999 in the Caprivi region of north eastern Namibia.
The Namibian government declared a State of Emergency and detained more than 300 people on suspicion of participating in the attack, sympathizing with the secessionists or assisting them to plan or launch the attacks.
Fearing persecution and political violence, many people fled to neighbouring Botswana, where they have been living for almost two decades. While many have returned back home, some have remained in Botswana.