Lovemore Ranga Mataire recently at Tongogara Refugee Camp
Located 420km from Harare on the south-eastern part of Mutare is Tongogara Refugee Camp, which official figures say is home to 8,000 nationals from different troubled nations.
While from a distance, the camp looks like a normal habitable place with several permanent structures like houses and a clinic fairly equipped and manned by competent staff, the scattered makeshift tents, some made of plastic material, reveal the sordid and desperate side of the camp.
Established in 1980 to accommodate Mozambicans fleeing conflict in that country, the camp was closed in 1995 when the Zimbabwean government facilitated the repatriation of 65,000 Mozambicans back to their country.
The repatriation of the 65,000 Mozambicans led to the closure of the camp for a period of three years before being re-opened in 1998 after the country started receiving a higher number asylum seekers from other parts of Africa.
Camp administrator Misheck Zengeya said the camp currently has a population of 10,000 refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Mozambique, Burundi, Rwanda, Somalia, Ivory Coast, Mali, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Sudan. There are also refugees from Ghana, Kenya and Uganda.
Zengeya said the population at the camp increased to above 5 000 in 2015 mainly due to escalating conflicts in DRC, Burundi and Mozambique. And of late there has been a marked increase of refugees from Mozambique due to renewed fighting between Renamo and government forces.
Unfortunately, the increase in population at the camp has not been commensurate with increase of ablution and other necessary facilities. The situation has been worsened by the fact that about 900 Mozambicans were last December granted refugee status.
But the number of people from the neighbouring country continues to increase with between 20 to 30 asylum seekers arriving at the camp at any given time.
Minister of State for Manicaland Province Mandi Chimene said at least 4,500 Mozambican nationals had crossed the border to Zimbabwe and were currently living close to the border with some relatives.
This, Chimene said, poses a serious security problem as the 4 500 Mozambicans compete for scarce resources with the locals.
As a remedy, Chimene said the 4,500 people are supposed to be relocated to Tongogara Camp where they are to be officially recognised as refugees and subjected to the same status as other refugees. If this relocation is implemented, the population at Tongogara Camp is likely to increase from 10,000 to almost 20,000, further putting pressure on the scarce resources at the camp.
Ahead of the rainy season barely a month away, fears are abound that the camp can become a haven for water borne diseases, which furthers poses a serious danger to surrounding communities.
It is in light of this impending health disaster that then Minister of Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare Prisca Mupfumira recently visited the camp to have a first-hand appraisal of the challenges the refugees are facing.
Mupfumira expressed gratitude to the World Food Programme for assisting government in providing food for the refugee and urged other non-governmental organisations to assist.
In a no holds barred address to the refugees, Mupfumira said all Rwandan refugees at the camp were expected to return back to their country as the country was now at peace. She said the decision to repatriate Rwandese was not a Zimbabwean government decision but an international decision.
“It’s not the government of Zimbabwe coming with a position that Rwandan refugees must go back come December 31. It is a position taken last year in October in Geneva affecting Rwandans wherever they may be. The idea of being a refugee is not a permanent issue. I have been a refugee before independence in the UK but when we got independence the UNHCR had to come and repatriate us. Come December 31, the Cessation Clause will come into effect. Our hands are tied because we have to comply with the UN,” Mupfumira said.
But despite this directive, there is no sign that Rwandese are leaving the camp. In fact, some have been clamouring for a recognisable status as they have been in the country for more than 10 years. Other refugees from other countries have also registered concerns about preferential treatment given to Mozambican nationals.
The WFP, which has taken over the distribution of food at the camp, has changed from cash based transfers in order to allow refuges to make their own purchase decisions about food and basic necessities. As such on a monthly basis, WFP is now providing monetary stipends to inhabitants while new arrivals get an in-kind transfer (until they are registered) to cover potential gap between arrival and the start of regular distributions.
But WFP is also facing financial difficulties and has already appealed for US$2.5 million. As the rainy season beckons, 300 mud-built houses that were destroyed by heavy rains last year are still to be rebuild.
Children are the most vulnerable, with more than 200 Mozambican children not going to school because of shortage of facilities and teachers.
Teacher-in-charge at Tongogara Primary School, Tracy Mutema, said the school was facing a severe shortage of classrooms, resulting in children learning under the trees. The school has an enrolment of 1 694 pupils.
But all is not bleak. Goal Zimbabwe, a local aid agency, has initiated several livelihoods projects aimed at building resilience and capacitating the refugees to attain self-sustenance. The livelihoods programme is being hampered by lack of land as only 1,023 households were participating in the livelihoods programme which includes poultry and piggery projects as well as crop faming.
The ballooning population at Tongogara Refugee Camp has made it a contested terrain by political parties. The opposition MDC-T claimed that it had uncovered a plot by the ruling ZANU-PF to register all the refugees at the camp as potential voters.
ZANU-PF has, however, rebuffed the allegations with its provincial youth chairperson Mubuso Chinguno saying the claims were being propagated by failed politicians bent on creating confusion and fear defeat in the impending elections.
It remains to be seen whether the Zimbabwean government and all related agencies will pool resources to ensure that come the rains, the situation at the camp has improved.
Without immediate intervention, Tongogara Refugee Camp remains an accident waiting to happen.