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CAB022 / Zambia / REFUGEES AT MEHEBA OCCUPY UNHCR OFFICES TO PROTEST CORRUPTION

SUBJECT: REFUGEES AT MEHEBA OCCUPY UNHCR OFFICES TO PROTEST CORRUPTION

¶1. (C) Summary: In early February, 200 refugees began occupation of the offices of UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) and Government of Zambia (GRZ) staff at Meheba refugee camp to protest wide-spread corruption by GRZ camp officials. The GRZ is considering deporting the instigators against UNHCR wishes. While the protests are non-violent, the action has, as intended, underscored mismanagement and other challenges at Meheba, the largest refugee camp in Zambia. End Summary.

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Refugees camp out in Meheba’s offices
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¶2. (C) Meheba Refugee camp, spread over 720 sq. km in Northwestern Province, houses over 15,000 refugees. Approximately half of the refugees are Angolans but 10 other nationalities are present including approximately 3,000 Congolese. In early February, approximately 200 Congolese refugees began an occupation of the offices of the GRZ Refugee Officer and UNHCR staff to protest corruption. They also demanded resettlement outside of Africa. In particular, the instigators of the protests are seeking the removal of the newly installed GRZ Refugee officer who had been brought in to replace the one fired for corruption. The GRZ is sending police from nearby Solwezi to maintain security. However, the non-violent occupation of offices continues.

¶3. (C) UNHCR resident Representative Kevin Greene and the GRZ Commissioner for Refugees, Sonkwe Lugwalo, visited the camp January 26-27. A raucous group of protesting refugees followed the dignitaries throughout their visit, holding signs, banging cars, and slinging verbal insults. During a five-hour meeting with the refugees, Greene and Lugwalo attempted to diffuse the situation by explaining what steps had been taken to address the corruption concerns. A brief brawl broke out, although Greene speculates it may have been orchestrated.

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Investigating corruption at Meheba
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¶4. (C) According to UNHCR, refugees at Meheba have raised complaints of corruption over the past couple of years but more serious accusations surfaced in October of last year. According to the allegations, the GRZ Refugee Officer (RO) and the GRZ Registrations officers changed refugees’ names, nationality, and other records to enhance resettlement opportunities for specific refugees, registered Congolese nationals as refugees using the identities of refugees who had left the camp, sold gate passes, and added ineligible refugees to food distribution. In light of these allegations, a joint team comprising the GRZ Office of the Commissioner of Refugees (COR) and UNHCR conducted an investigation between November 30 and December 10. The team found that new refugee arrivals entered without normal adjudication, including refugees coming from Kinshasa. Refugees reported buying refugee documents from the RO and buying gate passes from COR staff. UNHCR also conducted an electronic audit of the refugee database, which had been created by UNHCR but entirely managed by COR, and discovered hundreds of cases where data had been manipulated. While some cases of data changes were likely the result of laziness – reusing existing cases to create news ones – other cases suggest deliberate fraud.

¶5. (C) As a result of the investigation, the GRZ Commissioner for Refugees fired the top GRZ officers at Meheba including the RO and two Registration officers. There is no evidence of wrong-doing by UNHCR staff other than a lack of oversight, but UNHCR chose not to extend the contract of their top staff member at Meheba. Although UNHCR cannot expand the number of positions in Zambia due to budgetary constraints, it is transferring staff members to Meheba to increase oversight. UNHCR has realized it must vigilantly monitor the database, which from now on will be thoroughly scrubbed along with food distribution lists. Police are investigating document purchases. Cases of recent arrivals will be re-evaluated.

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Deport the instigators?
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¶6. (C) Faced with a decision on what do with the instigators of the unrest at Meheba, the GRZ is moving forward with deportation, under Article 32 of the 1951 Refugee Convention (maintaining order), against the advice of UNHCR. Aside from ensuring that Zambia continues to abide by conventions against forced returns, UNHCR is concerned that these forced returns will increase pressure by the remaining Congolese who will argue that they must be resettled outside of Africa to avoid deportation by the GRZ. While UNHCR has argued that instigators should instead be tried under the Zambian legal system, the GRZ expressed no desire to expend the money, nor risk making the perpetrators heroes when they are later released and returned to the camp. Following the brief brawl during the UNHCR / GRZ meeting with the protesting refugees, the army’s Deputy Regional Commander of Northwestern Province reportedly told the refugees, “If the military had its way, you will go out faster than the way you came in.”

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Comment
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¶7. (C) Tensions at Meheba are already high. Meheba will be further stressed this year if the Government of Zambia, in conjunction with UNHCR, goes forward with plans to close the primarily Congolese refugees camps of Kala and Mwange and relocate any remaining Congolese refugees to Meheba.

¶8. As the Embassy continues to engage the GRZ on corruption and refugee issues, post will monitor whether the incidents at Meheba affect the political climate in Zambia. Additionally, UNHCR will need to increase its oversight of GRZ staff at all points of refugee processing at Meheba.

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