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Malawi Is No Longer Safe for Refugees

The government’s plan to relocate thousands of refugees to a congested camp could have catastrophic consequences.

By , a freelance journalist based in Lilongwe, Malawi.
A woman walks as children play at the Dzaleka refugee camp in Dowa, Malawi.
A woman walks as children play at the Dzaleka refugee camp in Dowa, Malawi.
A woman walks as children play at the Dzaleka refugee camp in Dowa, Malawi. Angela Jimu/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

For decades, refugees fleeing conflict in Africa have turned to Malawi, a small, peaceful East African nation in that has long served as a regional safe haven.

Over the years, Malawi has come to host more than 50,000 refugees, with the vast majority of people arriving from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi, and Rwanda. The bulk of refugees reside in the Dzaleka refugee camp, the country’s main hosting site, while the remaining 2,000 refugees have fully integrated into society, building businesses, marrying locals, and starting families.

Despite being one of the poorest countries in the world, Malawi worked closely with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) for years to ensure that refugees received protection and access to education, health care, food, shelter, and employment opportunities. In 2018, the government even indicated it would roll out a comprehensive refugee response framework focused on local integration, voluntary repatriation or return, and resettlement.

For decades, refugees fleeing conflict in Africa have turned to Malawi, a small, peaceful East African nation in that has long served as a regional safe haven.

Over the years, Malawi has come to host more than 50,000 refugees, with the vast majority of people arriving from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi, and Rwanda. The bulk of refugees reside in the Dzaleka refugee camp, the country’s main hosting site, while the remaining 2,000 refugees have fully integrated into society, building businesses, marrying locals, and starting families.

Despite being one of the poorest countries in the world, Malawi worked closely with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) for years to ensure that refugees received protection and access to education, health care, food, shelter, and employment opportunities. In 2018, the government even indicated it would roll out a comprehensive refugee response framework focused on local integration, voluntary repatriation or return, and resettlement.

This humane stance vanished in April, when the government announced that it would uproot and relocate all refugees across the country to the Dzaleka refugee camp for national security reasons.

As refugees now grapple with the prospect of uprooted lives, Malawi’s decision could have devastating consequences—for both those who are forcibly relocated and the country as a whole.


Dzaleka refugee camp was never meant to hold Malawi’s entire refugee population.

When the camp was built in response to the Rwandan genocide in 1994, it was only equipped to accommodate 10,000 people. That number has since skyrocketed to over 50,000 refugees, as conflicts in Congo and Burundi have pushed around five times as many people to seek safety in Malawi. These numbers are still rising: In August, UNHCR estimated that 122 people and 181 newborn babies were joining the camp that month.

Within Dzaleka, extreme overcrowding has given rise to dangerous conditions. In the camp’s tight quarters, communicable diseases, including COVID-19, spread more rapidly, increasing the risk of infection or death. In January, the camp registered a cumulative total of 90 COVID-19 cases and 2 deaths.

These conditions could worsen if the more than 2,000 refugees who have already integrated into society are forced to return to Dzaleka, built some 30 miles from the Malawian capital, Lilongwe. Water, health facilities, and educational programs—resources already stretched thin by the camp’s sheer population—would only become more strained, further endangering residents.

All refugees are assigned to the Dzaleka refugee camp when they first arrive in Malawi, but a couple thousand have successfully left to work and establish businesses in local communities. Under the country’s encampment laws, which prohibit refugees from staying or working outside their designated camp, this is technically illegal—but these laws were never fully enforced, and prior administrations even encouraged refugees to leave and become participating members of society.

Authorities now allege that refugees pose a threat to national security by staying outside Dzaleka, even though they have never previously been seen as a security risk. According to the new policy, refugees who wish to stay must apply for citizenship in order to abide by laws that were not historically enforced.

More likely, the policy shift was induced by political and economic pressure. Malawi’s most recent wave of refugees—mostly Rwandans and Burundians who arrived in 1994—have become vital to the country’s economic development, running popular businesses that dominate the retail industry in urban cities.

With this competition, grocery and retail shop owners have long complained that refugees steal their business opportunities. As elections loom in 2025, Minister of Homeland Security Richard Chimwendo Banda, who is also a member of the ruling Malawi Congress Party, reversed course—most likely to appease his base and garner broader support.

In some cases, these sentiments have resulted in xenophobic attacks on refugees’ homes or shops. In August, for instance, a well-respected Burundian businessman was found dead in a pit in Malawi’s Kasungu district, in what was widely suspected to be a result of conflict with the local business community.

Now, on top of mounting xenophobia, refugees are also facing a worrying future of forced relocation.

“The government can’t just wake up and direct that all refugees have to return to Dzaleka refugee camp,” said Sylvester Namiwa, a civil rights activist. “These refugees have heavily invested in the country.”


The consequences of uprooting and relocating thousands of refugees to the Dzaleka camp could be catastrophic.

Some members of the refugee community have lived in Malawi for over 15 years and qualify for citizenship; others have become key members of the local community, including by starting families and establishing businesses.

Steven Bizimungu, a Burundian national who has resided at both Luwani and Dzaleka refugee camps and is fluent in two Malawian languages, has been married to a Malawian woman since 2007 and runs a grocery store in Lilongwe. The prospect of what would happen to his family—and his life—if he was relocated is frightening.

“I cannot imagine how life would be like if I would be forced to return to Dzaleka, and how the life of my wife and children would be affected,” he told Foreign Policy.

While the government’s initial deadline for refugee relocation was April 28, members of the refugee community fought for a court injunction that has temporarily halted any resettlements. But this has not stopped people like Bizimungu from living in fear of xenophobic attacks, even as police promised to hold any perpetrators accountable.

“Some members of the local community have been openly saying that they will attack my shop once the injunction is lifted,” he said.

Human rights activists share this fear and have voiced concerns that forcibly uprooting the refugees is a human rights violation. Even UNHCR has urged the government to reconsider its decision, as Dzaleka cannot accommodate more people and these refugees have become integral parts of the Malawian social fabric.

According to Chrispine Sibande, a human rights lawyer based in Lilongwe, forcibly moving refugees to Dzaleka is tantamount to discrimination and is a gross abuse of human rights, both of which are prohibited by the Malawian Constitution. Since the country’s constitution affords every person economic rights, regardless of their place of origin, Sibande said these refugees should be given business permits to operate legally—not sent back to Dzaleka.

Even though accepting thousands of refugees has, at times, overwhelmed the country’s institutions, forcibly relocating them to Dzaleka is a misguided response. To better serve both refugees and local communities, Malawi must work closely with international agencies like UNHCR to develop a refugee and resettlement policy that accommodates both groups’ needs. In adopting such a policy, the government can look to the example of Kenya, which successfully implemented similar resettlement programs in 2016.

If the government follows through and implements the relocation policy, it will leave a trail of separated families, uprooted lives, and closed businesses—with devastating social and economic consequences for the country.

Madalitso Wills Kateta is a freelance journalist based in Lilongwe, Malawi. He covers human rights, climate change, politics, and global development. Twitter: @Madatso_Kateta

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