Botswana has started repatriating about 300 Zimbabwean refugees who fled the country during the reign of late former president Robert Mugabe.
A group of 48 refugees arrived in Zimbabwe’s border town of Plumtree from Dukwi Refugee Camp in Botswana on Tuesday, despite concerns that they may face renewed persecution from the current administration. Another batch of returnees is expected back in the country before the end of the week.
“We don’t want to bring a large group at one go as we have to implement Covid-19 containment measures,” said Botswana’s director of refugee management and welfare Thobo Letlhage.
“Also, those who are being repatriated will be having a Covid-19 test certificate. For those who would have tested positive, they will be held until its safe for them to travel. As the government of Botswana, we committed to assisting the refugees as we believe that their best interest is served when they return to their homes,” he added.
Most of the refugees fled Zimbabwe in 2008 after an outbreak of political violence that followed Mugabe’s electoral defeat at the hands of late opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai.
The strongman had lost the first round of the presidential poll to his bitter rival before the controversial run-off where he ended up running unopposed after Mr Tsvangirai was forced to pull out due to violence by security forces and ruling Zanu PF militia.
Several opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) supporters were killed while thousands were displaced by the violence.
South Africa and Botswana received thousands of refugees from Zimbabwe during this period.
Years later, Mr Mugabe was toppled by the military in 2017, paving way for President Emmerson Mnangagwa to take over.
However, some have criticised Botswana for forcing the refugees to return home. For instance, the Zimbabwe People Power Movement (ZPPM), a group representing the refugees, petitioned the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) seeking to have the exercise put on hold.
ZPPM says some of the refugees being sent home are ex-soldiers who deserted the Zimbabwean army because they did not want to take part in human rights violations. The organisations says that such returnees are in danger of being arrested if they go back.
However, UNHCR representative in Zimbabwe, Abdoulaye Barry, who was among officials that received the refugees in Plumtree, said he believed the returnees’ safety was guaranteed.
“The return to their home country is a durable solution for refugees,” Mr Barry said.
“We have the repatriation, which they are doing today, we have the local integration and resettlement in the third country. This shows clearly that their country is safe and they feel safe to come back so that they can be involved in socio-economic development.”
Although there are no reliable statistics, it is believed that South Africa has the largest population of Zimbabwean refugees estimated at over one million. In 2009, South Africa gave special permits to at least 250,000 undocumented Zimbabwean immigrants. The country deports hundreds of illegal immigrants from Zimbabwe every month.
Other countries with a significant number of Zimbabweans are the United Kingdom (UK) and Australia.
The UK has been trying to deport some of the refugees since the coup.