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Covid-19 leaves asylum seekers in limbo



“SORRY, I’m not myself today. I have just lost my daughter and I’m here to inform the authorities,” this was the greeting from an asylum seeker at Tongogara Refugee Camp last week, when The NewsHawks visited the camp.

Lokassa Mbele (not real name for security reasons) had just lost his two-year-old daughter at Chipinge Hospital earlier that day.

Mbele strongly believes his daughter would have still been alive today if the processes of getting his family settled in the United States, where there is better health care, had been expedited. He is not the only one who has been affected by the disruption of immigration processes for refugees keen on settling in Western countries. But he acknowledges the impact of Covid-19 pandemic. 

Mbele arrived in Zimbabwe in 2011 from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and went through a two-year asylum application process, before he was finally successful over a year ago.

His quest to be settled in the US went cold in the wake of the Covid-19 global epidemic.
He tries to force a smile as he waits outside a World Food Programme distribution camp at Tongogara Refugee camp.

“I feel if we were in a different country, with the kind of healthcare service that the US has, things could have turned out differently,” Mbele says as he throws his hands up in exasperation.

 “But who knows? Such is life,” he says, as tears well up in his deep-set eyes.

“Our stay here is dragging on miserably and the future is now uncertain. We do not even know whether we will still succeed in going or not.”

The 42-year-old is among 14 940 refugees and asylum seekers in the camp from the DRC, Rwanda, Burundi, Mozambique, Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Mali, Uganda, Central Africa Republic, Sudan and South Sudan.

Many of them are hoping to be resettled in Western countries with better civil and political rights but most of the countries have imposed a freeze on the processing of refugees in the face of turmoil and ever-shrinking global economies.

Upon arrival at Tongogara Camp, persons of concern are taken through a vetting process that involves government departments such as the Central Intelligence Organisation, immigration, Department of Social Welfare, police, army and other stakeholders before they are granted refugee status or rejected. 

Those who get “rejected”, are given an ultimatum to leave the country within three months. However, Zimbabwe is still accommodating more than 800 asylum seekers whose applications were rejected years ago. 

As the refugees stay at the camp, they also apply for what are called “durable solutions”, which include resettlement in some overseas countries such as the US, Canada and Australia which annually approve and offer citizenship to some refugees. 

Despite the Covid-19-induced travelling restrictions, Zimbabwe continues to receive new arrivals mainly from the DRC, Mozambique and Burundi. Tongogara Camp administrator Johanne Mhlanga confirmed that most Western countries suspended accommodating refugees as part of their Covid-19 containment measures ,putting a freeze on settlement.

“Covid-19 wreaked havoc across the length and breadth of the globe. Many countries adopted restrictive measures to curtail the spread of the virus. Western countries, especially USA, Canada, Finland, among others, suspended resettlement missions due to the Covid-19 scourge. As a result, many resettlement hopefuls failed to be resettled,” he said.

Mhlanga however said they are not sure of how many of the refugees have been affected by the decision.

“We do not have clear-cut information on the number of families that could have been resettled because the process is not under our control but the receiving countries. There is a lot that is considered under resettlement,” he explained.

Arrivals were however not affected much by the epidemic as asylum seekers often found their way across borders even under the Covid-19 lockdown restrictions, Mhlanga said.

“We did not face any challenges because asylum seekers find their own ways to the camp. We do not support their travel to the camp,” he said.

To manage the risk of new arrivals bringing Covid-19 into the camp, Tongogara Camp set up 40-room quarantine centre and an isolation centre for those who tested positive to the respiratory disease.
The camp has not had a patient for more than a month now.

“We also had not registered any Covid-19 fatality,” Mhlanga said.

Zimbabwe’s weak social security and tainted human rights record have made it unattractive for asylum seekers with only about 140 Rwandan refugees who lost their refugee status through a 2013 United Nations (UN) cessation which was then extended to 31 December 2015 being interested in local settlement.

The government is however keen on repatriating them despite their lack of interest to return to their homeland.

Kinduele Pascal, another refugee from the DRC, who initially settled in South Africa only to flee it during the 2008 xenophobic attacks, said locals were peaceful and friendly and he would not have minded staying had it not been for “its own problem”.

“There is however personal security here unlike back in the DRC and South Africa,” Pascal said.
Returning home is out of the question for most refugees including Pascal. “I have a very big problem in DRC and I cannot go back there,” he said.

He too is anxiously waiting for the Covid-19 pandemic to be contained for resettlement processes to resume.

“I pray every day for my turn to come soon. All I want in a country where my six children can be secure and realise their potential.

“Covid-19 has delayed the resettlement of many people here and they’re very frustrated to continue to live in the camp when they know they could be having a fresh start in a better country like Australia and the US,” Pascal said.

In most cases, refugees do not get to choose the country they finally resettle in; it is the respective countries which handpick the asylum seekers, depending on their personal profiling.

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