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Villagers clash over new Karonga refugee camp

There are fears that current tensions brewing over disagreements on whether Malawi’s largest refugee campsite should be relocated from Dzaleka in Dowa to Katili in Karonga could degenerate into chaos.

The controversy has been prompted by Paramount Chief Kyungu’s decision to allocate over 90 hectares of land for the establishment of a new refugee campsite to accommodate a maximum of 40,000 refugees.

Karonga chiefs are leading their subjects in deciding whether to accept the refugee campsite in the border district or not.

Just last week, some people were engaged in clashes over the issue, leaving several injured and one Amos Mwaulambo aged 31 years, admitted to Karonga District Hospital with serious wounds after being stabbed in the stomach.

In a separate incident during the same week, police were called in to restore order after community members threatened to demonstrate outside a meeting held by chiefs in support of the establishment of the refugee camp in the district.

Community rights activist Steven Simsokwe was picked up for questioning at Karonga police and was later released without any charge.

Traditional Authority Wasambo is one of the leaders against the relocation of the refugee camp to the area while Paramount Chief Kyungu is siding with the government.

“There are so many gaps surrounding the matter. The consultative process has not been in good faith. It’s difficult to support an initiative without being given the critical information,” Wasambo said.

The traditional leader wants government to outline the advantages and disadvantages of having the refugee camp in the border district.

Some local civil society organisations in Karonga have weighed in on calls for talks between government and local communities.

Chitipa-Karonga Heritage Group, a cultural preservation grouping of several ethnic groupings in the two districts, fears the introduction of refugees in the locality could threaten their established cultural norms.

The grouping’s Secretary General Wanthwa Mwahimba accused government of failing to consider their views and input on the issue.

“Government has not provided some critical information on the relocation exercise. As a matter of principle, we shall only engage in talks with government when it’s ready to open up,” Mwahimba said.

Karonga Central MP Frank Mwenefumbo is also against the approach being pursued by government on the matter, describing it as totalitarian.

“Obtaining buy-in will be difficult if government continues to impose. Bringing refugees to an indifferent populace is recipe for more tensions,” warned Mwenefumbo.

Meanwhile, Paramount Chief Kyungu and the Group Village Head Cheghama who were part of an entourage to Ugandan refugee camps have since pledged support to the government on the move.

Among others, the refugee camp will attract some social amenities such as healthcare, vocational training, trade and social services that are expected to benefit the host community.

Minister of home affairs Grace Chiumia recently told The Daily Times that Malawi is under obligation to allocate space to refugees as a signatory of the UN treaty on refugees.

“Consultations took place in the last 10 years. It’s therefore unfair to change tune now,” said Chiumia in a recent interview with The Daily Times.

Dzaleka is located 35 kilometres north of the capital, Lilongwe and Katili is some 100 kilometres from the Malawi – Tanzania border in Karonga.

The majority of refugees in Dzaleka come from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Burundi, Rwanda, Somalia and Ethiopia.

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