Published on May 19th, 2013 | by Suzan Ilcan0
Osire Refugee Camp as a Site of Refugee Activism
The Osire Refugee Camp is a former detention centre under the South African apartheid regime that was repurposed in 1992 by Namibia’s government to provide for the needs of largely Angolan refugees during the Angolan civil conflict (1974-2002). It is situated on a past “white-owned” farm some 250 km north of the country’s capital, Windhoek, and the nearest settlement is Otjiwarongo, a town 140 km away. The camp houses some 6,900 refugees, with approximately 4,300 from Angola, 2,011 from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and 277 from Burundi (UNHCR/WFP 2011: 2). It is operated by international and national aid organizations, NGOs, and government staff (police, teachers, nurses) and is a space for identifying and counting refugees, controlling the movements of camp residents, and policing refugee demonstrations. This site, however, also fosters demands for social, legal, and political support on the part of Osire refugees and those working in solidarity with them
Act 1: through the Association for the Defense of Refugee Rights
The UN General Assembly designated an annual World Refugee Day, 20 June, to recognize the contribution of refugees throughout the world. The UN recognition of this day can be an occasion to demand social, economic, and political change by and for refugees. On 12 June 2008, an association formed by Osire camp residents, the Association for the Defense of Refugee Rights (ADR), wrote to the UNHCR’s country representative, the camp administrator, the police commander, Amnesty International, and several other organizations. On behalf of its members and supporters, it stated:
The Association for the Defense of Refugee Rights found it important to address an open-letter to you in which views and opinions concerning the wrong policy of the Namibia Government and the irregularities of the UNHCR Namibia under your responsibility regarding Refugees/Asylum-seekers’ problems and solutions are expressed. … The indefensible practice and attitude of keeping Osire Refugees/Asylum-seekers in Camp or segregating settlement, depriving them of some of their basic rights guaranteed in the UN Refugee Convention for years, and keeping them in without hope of a normal life. Over the course of the ADR’s 5 year history of advocating for the Osire Refugees/Asylum-seekers, we have observed more and more Osire Refugees/Asylum-seekers spending longer periods of time in the same situations, to the point that some of them have been warehoused for more than five or ten years without a valid Refugee Status Determination (ADR 2008).
This act of speaking out in the form of a letter not only attempted to bring international attention to the unjust living conditions in the camp but it also aimed to: raise new questions about the current lives of Osire refugees; demand changes to the determination of refugee status, and; bring about social and political change for camp residents. This event, and others related to it, remains emblematic of Namibia’s recent history of policing the movements and activities of Osire refugees and deporting others who for multifaceted reasons are compelled to demand social and political changes in states that are not their own and in states that view them as outsiders. Since its establishment in July 2002, the ADR has been calling on state authorities to register refugees “properly” and to allow them to receive appropriate legal documents, exercise their rights, and access employment and other opportunities.
Act 2: through the Association of the Voiceless
Refugee and human rights associations, such as Congolese refugees’ Association of the Voiceless and Namibia’s National Society for Human Rights, have previously and publicly condemned the violations of refugee rights by Namibia’s Ministry of Home Affairs and Immigration (MHAI). In particular, the Association of the Voiceless is a human rights organisation at Osire that was established to advocate respect for the rights of refugees and asylum seekers in the camp. It voices its concerns over rights and discrimination and insists on social, economic, and policy changes for Osire residents. It publishes the hand-written newspaper, Voice of Refugees, to document residents’ lives and politics and focus attention on their movements, legal status, and human rights. Prior to the demands made by the ADR in its 2008 letter, its January-March 2006 issue called on “donors around the world to stop donating” and asked “the UNHCR-Geneva to do everything in its power to lead the Osire Refugee Camp to a very fast closing,” labelling it “a den of moral torture and anarchy” (USCRI 2010). Other similar calls for change by the Association have since ensued.
On 30 March 2009, the Association wrote to the MHAI detailing the detested living conditions in the camp and requesting that Osire Camp be shut down and its residents resettled to third countries or incorporated into Namibian society. The ministry replied that its “writings constitute a threat to peace and security” and ordered it to “stop writing sensational articles … Anybody, as an individual, found continuing with that adversary type of behavior shall be requested to leave the Republic of Namibia within a specified period.” In response to the Association members’ activism, it was detailed that police officers threatened refugees with violence, expulsion from Namibia, and forcible repatriation. It was understood by some refugees that the Namibian authorities targeted Congolese refugees and disqualified their knowledge of the living conditions in the camp.
In upholding the legal language of refugee status and security protocols, the Namibian authorities highlighted ‘the problem’ with refugees who align themselves with the Association of the Voiceless. At this time, the Namibian government filed a reservation to the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (1951) on the right to freedom of movement. The Refugees Recognition and Control Act (1999) states, “Any person who, without the prior permission of the authorized officer or any other person in charge of [Osire], leaves or attempts to leave [the camp] shall be guilty of an offence and on conviction be liable to imprisonment for a period not exceeding 90 days.” According to the flourishing of media reports during this time, it was publicized and reiterated that refugees must receive a permit to leave the camp, and only those with valid study or work permits can remain outside (Refugee Rights News Nov. 2009).
On 7 July 2009, in response to the MHAI’s letter, a group of 41 Congolese refugees and asylum seekers, which included both adults and children, claimed that they were facing personal insecurity and cited violation of provisions of articles 32 and 33 of the UN convention. On this day, they fled the camp where many of them had been residing since the late 1990s. According to a press release issued by Namibia’s National Society for Human Rights, the group had contacted the Society with what they argued was evidence amounting to death threats. One Congolese member, Bibich Mwenze, claimed: “We took it as we were basically expelled by the Namibian government, and we decided to look for where we could go for safety instead” (Namibian 20 July 2009). The minister of information, Joel Kaapanda, remarked that the refugees had left the country without legal documents and were “in violation of the Refugee Recognition and Control Act, as well as the Departure from Namibia Regulation Amendment Act, which require that refugees apply for exit permits to leave Osire Camp and for travel documents to leave Namibia” (Refugee Rights News Nov. 2009).
The Namibian government later announced that it would not provide the refugees with humanitarian aid or allow them to return. While en route, the Congolese refugees became stranded between the city of Buiteos in Namibia and Mamuno in Botswana. At this time, they publicly voiced their concerns, engaged in a hunger strike to protest their “inhuman conditions” at the border, and, with support from human rights organizations, expressed their rights as refugees and asylum seekers. Since their departure from the camp, NAMRIGHTS, a human rights monitoring and advocacy organization, reported that several Congolese residents received expulsion letters from the Namibian commissioner for refugees (NAMRIGHTS 2009). Botswana, the Red Cross, and the UNHCR were providing them with food, shelter, and medical treatment until the Botswana police arrested them on 29 September 2009 and later deported them to their war-stricken country (Refugee Rights News Nov. 2009). Although it was made clear by state authorities that the Congolese refugees were deemed unwelcome and deportable in the border spaces territorially defined by Namibia and Botswana, these refugees were indeed political actors that brought national and international attention to their struggles as Osire camp refugees and non-citizens, and to their contestations over their positioning as outsiders. Other Congolese refugees residing in Osire camp have since demonstrated peacefully for basic rights and durable solutions, and these and other forms of refugee activism continue to foster local and international advocacy groups to call on the government and international human rights organizations to develop better living conditions, recognize refugees’ rights, and give them improved access to emotional, legal, and political support.
For the past several years, Osire camp residents have engaged in a diversity of acts of citizenship and social justice, in demands for redressing social, economic, and political injustices, and in appeals for new modes of habitation and political potentialities. Some residents continue to petition the Namibian state and humanitarian organizations for better housing, education, safety, and health services, and others protest police control, ‘illegal’ arrests, and deportations of camp refugees. Even though such acts often occur on the margins of everyday life, they are not simply spontaneous demands, protests, or demonstrations. These acts are often the result of accumulated actions, over short or long periods of time, that routinely expose the complexities of inequality and hierarchy, and that draw public and media attention to the politics of camp spaces and migrant uprisings.
Acts of letter writing, protests, and demonstrations, as revealed by Osire refugees and their supporters, can pose profound questions about the persistent insider/outsider dynamics that characterize the political communities of migrant spaces or that attempt to bring attention to and transform hierarchal relations of authority. These acts, however, may not always receive the kind of international and national attention for which they aim. Still, they can generate new social intensities that aim to repoliticize the capacities of citizenship’s outsiders and serve to endorse social justice organizations and human rights advocates and writers about ongoing population displacements occurring around the world, such as the displacement of diverse ethnic and national groups who reside in migrant spaces today, including Osire Refugee Camp. It seems momentously important to recall that inhabitants of migrant spaces are not only acted upon but they can act on and share experiences of displacement, discrimination, and hope which can render many other actions and many other effects.
Association for the Defense of Refugee Rights (ADR). 2008. Published Letter, 12 June 2008, Windhoek, Namibia.
Namibian. 2009. “Congolese Refugees ‘Prefer Death’ to Returning to Nam.” By Denver Isaacs. 13 July.
NAMRIGHTS. 2009. “Namibia Continues to Flout Refugees Rights.” Accessed (1 May 2013): www.nshr.org.na/index.php?module=News&func=display&sid=1139
Refugee Rights News. 2009. “Congolese in Danger of Being Deported from Botswana.” SPOTLIGHT 5(5). November.
UNHCR/WFP 2011. Joint Assessment Mission Report: Osire, Refugee Settlement, Namibia. Windhoek, Namibia.
USCRI (U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants). 2010. “Trapped in Osire Refugee Camp: Refugees Banned from Leaving Camp Following Peaceful Demonstration.” Accessed (Feb. 18): www.refugees.org/newsroomsub.aspx?id=2213