May 24, 2002

Refugee camp to be relocated to hunter-gatherer district?

The Namibian government plans to relocate around 24,000 refugees from the Osire refugee camp to M'kata, an ecologically sensitive district occupied by the hunter-gatherer San community. But now the United Nations' refugee agency says more studies are needed to determine the environmental impact of the moving. The indigenous San (the !Kung, !Xu and the Jo/Hoansi), donors, environmentalists, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) have raised concerns about the planned relocation, saying it will impact negatively on the environment and on wildlife.

UNHCR last year jointly commissioned a team of its experts to undertake a feasibility study at the proposed site.

Delphine Marie, UNHCR's spokesperson responsible for the Africa desk, told the newspaper The Namibian on inquiry that the UNHCR feels that "strong environmental measures would be necessary to protect vegetation" at the site. The study also recommends the holding "of a full feasibility study to prove suitable water supply, as well as the undertaking of an expert anthropological study of the impacts on the local San people of locating a refugee camp on their traditional land".

As the study noted the San communities of M'kata, through their traditional leaders have strongly asserted that they do not want the relocation of a refugee camp in their area," said the UNHCR official. Marie said the UNHCR is involved in negotiations with Government on the environmental and anthropological considerations of the move.

The study was undertaken by the agency's engineering and environmental services section and focused on the physical characteristics of the site, including topography, geology, hydrology, clime, soils and agriculture, water resources, site drainage and the availability and accessibility of construction material.

The UNHCR said it will not release the results of last year's findings "since all studies of this kind are undertaken on a confidential basis and remain internal to UNHCR".

With the recent developments in Angola, Home Affairs Minister Jerry Ekandjo has sent mixed messages about the relocation. In April he said "we are going to move it". However, on May 23, the Minister told The Namibian the plan might be shelved because of events in Angola. He said there was a possibility that developments in Angola might "empty" Osire in the next eight to 12 months as more and more refugees register for repatriation. The majority of refugees at Osire are Angolans.

Ekandjo said the reason Government had wanted to relocate the refugees was that 23 000 people are crammed into a small area which is "unhealthy". If the refugees are repatriated, Government might consider closing Osire and accommodating the remaining refugees elsewhere, he added.

Government initially mooted the idea of relocating the camp in 2000. Nxame Aromo, a senior traditional counsellor of the !Kung, summed up the San's predicament last year. He said the refugees would overwhelm the local population and that the area was too small.

"Where are our children going to settle when they grow up? Where are we going to get firewood? We depend on the forest for food and for poles to build our houses. The area in which they want to put the camp is where we get grass for thatching our huts, and where all our food sources are," he said. (THE NAMIBIAN, IRIN)


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