Dealing with asylum seekers in the new normal

The recent arrival of more than 50 refugees from the DRC and Burundi to Katima Mulilo raises questions during a pandemic. What is our adjusted policy to deal with untested, non-quarantined asylum seekers that rock up?

As much as Namibia is noble for welcoming Africans running for their lives from violence in their home countries, the government’s first obligation is the safety and security of its own people. The influx of untested people that lack the capacity to follow national protective measures (no masks, no social spacing, and no handwashing) carries a risk for Namibians. Can we be our brother and sister’s keeper in the time of COVID-19?

During the struggle against apartheid and the resistance to German colonialism, tens of thousands of Namibians escaped into bordering countries. Our people went over the borders in those days with nothing, praying that local people would assist them. In most cases, they received enough help to survive. This is one reason why Namibia since independence has worked closely with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, NGOs, church agencies and neighbouring countries on refugee affairs.

While the programs offered by budget-starved Namibia over the past 30 years are far from perfect, they are the best we can do with what we have. The question to be re-examined, however, is whether it possible to hold the ‘welcome’ signs up, when those seeking help could enter with COVID-19?

These same questions were asked in years gone by when people were fearful about HIV/AIDs or Ebola.

No one can predict when and where refugees will enter. Stopping them at border crossings is a way of providing services. However, many do not go to official border crossings. They don’t have papers. Desperate and fearful people cross rivers and forests, sometimes at night, and enter Namibia quite easily. When they come into contact with local people during this pandemic, then what?

In rural areas, if any disease takes hold, the transmission will be like a veldt fire on a day of high winds in the dry season. The refugees AND the people living in the areas they enter are vulnerable. A significant number of our people in rural areas are undernourished, under-served in terms of regular medical and dental care. Some have pre-existing conditions that make them immune-compromised. What is the plan to manage this?

We hasten to add that the health threat is two-way. Namibians left cities in droves to return to their villages due to unemployment or fear of more lockdowns. Some have carried the disease into the rural areas. They could infect the refugees.

We also have concern for our border patrols and immigration officers who are exposed to untested people and then go home to their families. How are we protecting our first responders and official staff?

Where is the national information program for people in the bordering areas of the country regarding interactions with those using unofficial entry points? Or, in true Namibian form, shall we wait until disaster strikes and only then run around in a panic to do something.

What has the UN High Commissioner on Refugees done to assist Namibia in financing COVID-19 testing, quarantine, contact tracing and protective equipment for refugees? Surely there a UN pandemic protocol for refugee centers?

Being a refugee is a nightmare existence and comes with perils most of us should thank God we never know. We do not raise this issue out of nationalistic self-preservation, but out of human concern for all involved.

Some former refugees refuse to return to their homes years after the danger has subsided. Some of their hesitation is because the monetary and material support given by the UN is better than what they will face in their home countries. Yet, it is also true that some carry psychological scars caused by the trauma and violence they escaped when they ran for their lives. The refugee issue has ever been a dilemma.

With the pandemic, that dilemma has been rendered even more complicated.

Government must let the nation know the new normal plan for receiving refugees during the pandemic. Inform our people about what to do when refugees pop-up amongst them without quarantine or protective equipment. The health of our own people and that of the refugees are at risk if we do nothing.

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