The Osire/M'Kata Refugee Crisis

Since Namibia’s independence in 1990, the long-running civil war in neighbouring Angola has produced a steady southward flow of refugees. Most of them have been settled at Osire, Namibia’s largest refugee camp, located on a former White-owned farm in the central part of the country. Under the auspices of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), the population of Osire had swollen to over 20,000. Nearby commercial farmers had long lobbied for removal of these displaced persons to another part of the country when the Government of Namibia in October 2000 announced a plan to resettle these refugees at M’Kata, in Tsumkwe District West. M’Kata, however, was already home to some 2,200 !Kung San, whose development hopes were riding on a very different agenda: approval of their Community Based Natural Resource Management (CBNRM) project, the N‡a Jaqna Conservancy.

On October 23, the Ministry of Home Affairs, along with the head of the Liaison Office of the UNHCR in Namibia and representatives of the Namibian Red Cross Society and the World Food Program, visited the proposed M’Kata resettlement site. On November 6, 2000, the permanent secretary of the Ministry of Home Affairs reaffirmed the government’s position on the refugee relocation to M’Kata. In spite of these developments, revised N‡a Jaqna Conservancy documents went forward to the Ministry of Environment and Tourism, but there was no reaction from the government by year’s end on the Conservancy’s status.

In early 2001, donor agencies and human rights and environmental groups lobbied the Government of Namibia against the proposed resettlement of the Osire refugees in M’Kata. !Kung Traditional Authority John Arnold had a meeting in Windhoek on January 31 with the head of the UNHCR to discuss the Osire resettlement issue. Mr. Arnold also met with various government officials and expressed his opposition to the relocation of refugees in M’Kata. At subsequent meetings between the government and the UNHCR, the Minister reconfirmed the government’s support for the move. It agreed, however, to conduct a comprehensive feasibility study of M’Kata.

From March through May, a UNHCR consultant conducted a technical feasibility study—a physical assessment—of the M’Kata area. WIMSA consultant Richard Pakleppa undertook a community consultancy on human rights education in Tsumkwe District West in April 2001. Between June and August, I carried out the resettlement’s social impact assessment. Meanwhile, the number of refugees at Osire increased to 21,000.

The resettlement was clearly of urgent priority, but was M’Kata the best destination site? The report on the anthropological study of the proposed resettlement at M’Kata was presented to the UNHCR on November 1st. Its conclusion: M’Kata should not be chosen as the site for relocation of the Osire refugees. Weighing the costs and benefits to both the migrants and the host population, the evidence did not favor moving such a large number of people to such an ecologically fragile and socially difficult situation.

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