Zambia, 1970: The Refugees (Control) Act: Angolan War refugees and Zambia’s “unorthodox” asylum policy

Map of Refugee Camps in Zambia, 1967-2012, copyright by Angela Grey Subulwa

On 4 September 1970, the Zambian government passed its first bill regarding refugee asylum to regulate the country’s humanitarian emergency. The Refugees (Control) Act enforced a set of obligations to refugees, not in compliance with international refugee protection norms. The regulation was part of Zambia’s reinforcement of security and protectionist measures that challenged the role of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) on the ground. Angolan refugees fleeing violence and persecution were among those most affected by the Zambian control policy, extending the Angolan Decolonization War to the territory’s eastern frontier.

Angolan refugees started scattering among kinship-related communities in Zambia before mid-1966 when more significant flows were identified. During the following months, the refugee influx increased exponentially, from 200 refugees in May to more than 4,000 in October; this number doubled in two years. In official government interviews, refugees presented as causes of flight: Portuguese official’s imprisonment and death threats to local chiefs and civilians; confinement in camps; and the increasing of União Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola’s (UNITA) violent activities in the Moxico District.

Landlocked and surrounded by conflicts and instability in neighboring countries, the Zambian government sought to protect its incipient economic stability by requesting international assistance from the UNHCR. In its first mission to Lusaka in August 1965, the agency’s delegate Ernest Schlatter pointed out the ambiguities of the government’s unorthodox policy. On the one hand, Zambia granted asylum to freedom fighters but not to civilians. On the other, the government showed signs of preparing for a humanitarian crisis: it created the Refugee International Council to deal with refugee situations, supervise humanitarian organizations, and negotiate with United Nations development agencies to integrate refugees in their general assistance programmes. Despite the uncertainties, and with a minimal budget, in 1966, the UNHCR put a team on the ground to assist in emergency aid and transportation of Angolan refugees to a settlement camp made available by Zambian authorities in Lwatembo.

The increasing influx of refugees into the territory from 1966 to 1968 and the widening of self-settlement areas near the border posed several challenges to humanitarian assistance programs’ progress and led to a harsher attitude on the government’s part towards both Angolan refugees and freedom fighters. The Lwatembo camp, planned to settle 2000 refugees, soon proved insufficient, and integration programmes had to be postponed so that refugees could be processed into Mayukwayukwa in the Western Province. Government authorities were unable to implement settlement schemes and regularly asked for international funds for transportation and emergency assistance. In 1969 both camps’ capacity was severely compromised due to overpopulation and soil saturation. Lwatembo was shut down and all refugees were transferred to Mayukwayukwa or Maheba, a new camp established in 1971. The multiple transfers and emergencies reflected constraints to refugees’ stability and to UNHCR. The agency had to justify its continuous funding allocation without any progress in refugee integration and self-sustainability programs. During this period, many Angolans continued to seek refuge in communities near the border to avoid restrictions and high mortality rumors in the camps. In this attempt to control their refuge experience, refugees caused major security problems by refusing to comply with Zambian regulations and involving themselves in the Angolan armed struggle. Several reports detailed Portuguese violation of Zambian territory to attack refugee communities and of distress posed by UNITA’s military activities, the most significant being the destruction of the Benguela railway. To respond to the situation, Zambian authorities resorted to reinforcing border patrols, forced repatriation, and, ultimately, new legislation.

Entrance to Mayoukwayoukwa Refugee Settlement, 2010, copyright by Angela Grey Subulwa

After ratifying the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its Protocol in 1969 - Zambia did not ratify the Organization for African Unity (OAU) Refugee Convention until 1973 - the government addressed the refugee situation in the country by passing The Refugees (Control) Act. The legislation was primarily concerned with refugee obligations rather than rights. It imposed control over refugee registration, transit and settlement; deprived refugees from their property; approved the use of repatriation as form of punishment; denied refugees the right of assembly and association; and gave authorities in the camps impunity to compel any refugee to comply with any order or direction under the Act. Notwithstanding international refugee protection agreements' violations, the UNHCR maintained its contributions to settlement projects and education and health programmes. The approach was common in other refugee cases in the African continent due to state incapacity to respond efficiently to humanitarian emergencies and comply with international standards on the granting of refugee protection.

In March 1972, refugees at Maheba wrote directly to the UNHCR headquarters complaining of mistreatment in the camp. From 1969 onwards, rations had been cut and refugees were obliged to work to obtain resources - the elderly were mostly affected by these measures due to their inability to work; health rights were compromised by the refusal of camp authorities to transfer refugees to hospitals; and students were unable to pursue their education paths after finishing the elementary stage. Refugees also complained about the misconduct of officers who chained refugees to trees and used starvation and thirst as punishment. In their plight, these refugees protested that their rights were not being acknowledged: “In fact we are not regarded as human beings, because we ran away from our mother land, and we have nowhere to go, nowhere to complain, and it is only the United Nations which can treat us as people. […] As refugees we have to be treated as people now we have turned as victims of Zambia.” [Complaint] After meeting with camp authorities and the Zambian Christian Refugee Service - the Lutheran World Federation organization responsible for humanitarian work supervision in the camps -, the UNHCR representative in Lusaka informed headquarters that the ration and work problems were being dealt with; the provision of secondary education for refugees was subject to availability in regular schools, insufficient even for Zambian citizens; and that there was a problem of miscommunication between refugees and camp authorities due to the lack of elected refugee representatives. However, the mistreatment was dismissed, and the plight would not be answered due to the authorities’ fear that it could lead to unrest within camp facilities.

As this case demonstrates, refugees used human rights discourses and mechanisms to complain about situations of mistreatment and abuses in asylum countries. Similar forms of protest had been put forward by Angolan refugees in the Congo ten years before, attesting for the proliferation of human rights before the late 1970s. Nevertheless, international humanitarian policies in this period fell short in granting protection of basic rights. In trying to avoid disputes with Zambian authorities and keep the projects to facilitate refugee integration, the UNHCR was unable to ensure refugee protection. Protection and security proved to be in opposite ends in several African contexts, where a shift to development-related assistance ensuring both self-sufficiency and economic viability predominated over human rights compliance. While several authors emphasize the multiple ways in which the UNHCR expanded its scope of action during the 1960s and 1970s, a thorough analysis of the challenges faced by the agency during this period is essential for a better understanding of refugee assistance dynamics in the region, namely regarding state compliance with international instruments. Blavo has identified the problem of state-driven policies in Africa and their emphasis on administrative interests rather than refugee rights, namely in self-settlement areas. However, as this case demonstrates, ensuring refugee protection and avoiding violence-related policies was also problematic in camps under international supervision. This issue translates both the problem of the UNHCR limited capacity to enforce refugee protection policies and to respond to refugee’s agency in contexts marked by violence and politicization of refugee assistance dynamics during decolonization transitions in Africa.

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Short Biographical Note on Contributor

Ana Filipa Guardião has a PhD by the University of Lisbon on refugee movements from decolonization processes in Kenya, Algeria and Angola, focusing on the dynamics surrounding international humanitarian assistance provided to these groups. Her main interests include population displacement and refugee management, historical intersections between imperialism and internationalism with focus on the politics of difference, human rights and humanitarianism. She was a fellow of the Global Humanitarianism Research Academy 2019.