By Isaac Mwanza
On Monday, August 14, 2023, the President of the Republic of Zambia, Mr. Hakainde Hichilema and his Cabinet held a 13th Cabinet Meeting in the Year 2023 at which Zambia’s National Refugee Policy was approved.
According to statistical data obtained by the Zambian Civil Liberties Union (ZCLU), Zambia currently hosts 89,109 refugees.
99 percent of these refugees are our African brothers and sisters from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola, Rwanda, Burundi and Somalia.
Women and children refugees constitute 60 percent of refugee population with only 3 percent (about 1,540) being elderly.
The approval of the policy therefore marks a commendable stride toward fostering a more inclusive and equitable society and enhancing the overall well-being of the refugees and their children residing in Zambia.
Nonetheless, it is crucial to recognize that this accomplishment marks only the outset of a journey that demands prompt and steadfast progress.
Over the years, successive governments have undertaken similar initiatives to enhance the well-being of refugees and their children, but have often fallen short in implementation.
However, these endeavours have often been nothing more than mere discussions, culminating in announcements or the introduction of laws, which unfortunately lacked effective implementation by the very people who made them.
Despite significant financial support from the international community in the past to help the Zambian government implement refugee programs, specifically for local integration, the allocated resources mysteriously disappeared with no discernible outcomes.
It is crucial that such a situation is not allowed to occur again in the future.
The previous government also made substantial strides by amending the refugee law through the introduction of the new Refugees Act No. 1 of 2017.
This legislation effectively incorporated the principles of the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees into our national framework.
However, progress was hampered by a lack of commitment and political will to effectively enforce provisions of the new Refugees Act.
Notably, Section 49 of this Act granted the Minister of Home Affairs the authority to naturalise and grant citizenship to long-standing refugees residing in Zambia.
Regrettably, the former Minister was unable to effectively implement crucial legal provisions of the Act, particularly concerning refugees who have resided in Zambia for as long as thirty years.
According to the data at hand, at least 21 percent of refugees choose to live in urban areas, where they work hard to sustain themselves. Unfortunately, they endure ongoing mistreatment at the hands of immigration authorities.
This category of refugees are frequently subjected to unwarranted arrests, detention, and deportation, even when they have valid reasons to be in these cities where they can seek employment opportunities to support themselves, rather than continue to rely on handouts from government and organizations like UNHCR.
These refugees find themselves detained alongside criminals in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions which expose them to violence and disease exacerbate their trauma and undermine their chances of rebuilding their lives.
Discriminatory actions, bolstered by ambiguous legal provisions, intensify the challenges faced by refugees and their offspring in Zambia.
Refugee children, who were born and raised in Zambia, endure ongoing discrimination and exclusion perpetuated by current laws.
Article 37 of Zambia’s constitution guarantees citizenship rights to children born in the country to foreign parents.
Nevertheless, it is profoundly unjust that refugee children are unfairly excluded and barred from the chance to apply for citizenship – a blatant form of discrimination.
These children unquestionably merit acknowledgment as integral members of the Zambian community.
Assistant High Commissioner for Protection at the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, during her visit to Zambia last year, aptly observed the following about these children:
“[Refugee] Children born in Zambia, who have lived in here all their lives, have gone to schools in Zambia, speak Zambian languages, sing the national anthem and embrace the traditions of Zambian cultures as Zambia.”
One of the most significant disparities a refugee child encounters is the denial of Zambian citizenship, a privilege that children of other foreign parents can readily claim.
These refugee children, despite being born in Zambia to foreign parents, face unique challenges that set them apart from their peers with Zambian citizenship.
When they have met all constitutional requirements, these refugee children discover they are not as equal to those other children who can successfully acquire the Zambian citizenship through registration.
From primary school to high school, these refugee children receive their education with support from Zambian taxpayers who have invested significantly in their upbringing.
However, when the time comes for them to pursue tertiary education or seek employment opportunities in Zambia, the harsh reality of discrimination becomes evident.
In the pursuit of higher education, children born from refugee parents encounter the arduous process of applying for expensive study permits, a requirement that places them at a disadvantage.
Furthermore, even though they consider Zambia their home, having spent most of their lives here, refugee cannot engage in employment without obtaining a work permit.
These legal barriers present significant obstacles to their aspirations and opportunities in their country of birth artificially created by the Citizenship of Zambia Act, the Refugees Act and the Immigration and Deportation Act.
Institutionalized discrimination is evident in employment practices where employers, including those in the private sector, explicitly demand that job applicants must either be Zambian nationals or hold resident permits.
This discriminatory treatment extends to property ownership in Zambia.
This holds true regardless of whether they were born in Zambia or have spent their entire lives here.
Refugees or their children who happen to own property often find themselves in a precarious situation, as the Land Act imposes substantial barriers that make it exceedingly challenging for them to legally own property.
Refugees are not investors nor did not plan to leave their countries for Zambia.
The Zambia’s Immigration and Deportation Act, 2010 does not provide a mechanism for them to obtain permanent resident permits in Zambia.
It remains a stark reality then that under the above circumstance, refugees and their children are, regrettably, unable to legally own land under the Lands Act of 1995 unless they try their luck to obtain the President’s written consent.
Refugees often face significant challenges when trying to access basic healthcare services.
In 2018, the Zambian government took an important step to make healthcare more affordable by introducing the National Health Insurance Act (NHIMA).
The goal of NHIMA was to guarantee that everyone in the country could access high-quality healthcare services that are covered by insurance.
However, there is a notable issue with Section 13 of the NHIMA Act. It fails to include refugees as eligible members of NHIMA, which means that they are not covered by the insurance program and face barriers in accessing healthcare services.
This exclusion of refugees from the National Health Insurance Act has several adverse effects.
Refugees and their children, already vulnerable due to displacement and often residing in challenging conditions, are denied access to the benefits of quality insured healthcare.
This limitation can have dire consequences for their well-being, as they may face difficulties in obtaining timely medical treatment.
Excluding refugees from the national health insurance scheme exacerbates health disparities within the country.
It creates a divide where some residents have access to comprehensive healthcare while others do not, perpetuating inequalities in healthcare outcomes.
From a broader perspective, excluding refugees from healthcare coverage can pose public health risks.
Uninsured individuals may delay seeking medical attention, potentially leading to the spread of communicable diseases, which can affect the general population’s health.
The President and his Cabinet have laid the groundwork for significant change.
However, it’s now crucial to accelerate the process to ensure that this historic policy isn’t just empty talk, as has often happened in the past with previous administrations. The time for action is here, with urgent tasks ahead.
We collectively hope that this policy won’t be another empty public relations move, as we ‘ve seen too frequently in the past. We ‘ve witnessed policies and laws being created but then left unimplemented in the shadows.
President Hichilema’s administration must take concrete steps now. They should collaborate with citizens and organizations like the ZCLU to ensure the successful implementation of the National Refugee Policy.
Transparency is vital, and the government should make the policy public to build understanding and garner support from citizens.
As citizens, we have a responsibility to assist Government deliver real results.
The National Refugee Policy provides a chance to uphold our values of compassion, humanity, and inclusivity.
It’s crucial to understand that the government can’t do this alone. Government should actively collaborate with citizens, their organizations and the international community to put this policy into action.
Together, we can ensure that Zambia continues to lead the way in improving the lives of refugees, fostering social cohesion, and upholding Zambia’s values of compassion and inclusivity.
It’s time to turn words into deeds and ensure that this policy serves as a beacon of hope and progress for refugees.