Somali refugees are leaving Zambian settlement camps, and although they have the right to move, the government and the UN refugee agency are concerned about being used as a "stepping-stone" to other destinations.
Peter Mumba, permanent secretary of the Zambian Ministry of the Interior, told IRIN: "Out of the over 120 Somali refugees that we officially registered in March this year, only two are in Meheba camp now. This is a very sad situation for us, because it will make us to start treating every refugee with suspicion." Meheba, in North Western Province, is Zambia's largest place of settlement for refugees.
Mumba said initial investigations suggested that the asylum seekers, either buying their way out or assisted by the Somali population living outside the camp, were crossing into neighbouring Zimbabwe and Namibia at undesignated border points.
He estimated that over 900 Somalis were living outside Zambia's camps.
"Our investigations indicate that the Somali refugees are using Zambia as a stepping-stone to filter into South Africa before negotiating their way onto Mexico-bound ships. Once in Mexico, they can easily walk into the USA [United States of America] as their final destination," Mumba said.
The Zambian government had written to the South African, Namibian and Zimbabwean authorities, he added, warning them to be on the lookout for Somali refugees.
Lawrence Mgbangson, regional protection officer for UNHCR, the UN's refugee agency, noted that "under the UN Convention on the rights of refugees, all refugees are allowed to seek asylum in any country of their choice".
His agency suspected that the absent refugees had decided to seek asylum in other countries after failing to adapt to life in the Zambian camp, "But this should be done in a proper manner. What hurts us most, in this case, is that the refugees had to disappear without following the right procedure."
In an effort to reduce the numbers of refugees leaving the camps, UNHCR planned to start sensitising all asylum seekers to the importance of following the correct procedures. The action taken by the Somalis has raised concerns that if sensitisation is delayed, refugees from other countries, like Angola, Burundi, Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo, might also start moving out of Zambian camps of their own accord.
The Somali refugees, fleeing intensified clashes between militiamen of the Islamic courts and forces loyal to an alliance of secular leaders, entered Zambia from Tanzania at the Nakonde border post in December 2005.
After passing through a number of camps they were settled in Meheba, which covers more than 840sq.km and housed an estimated refugee population of over 14,000 in April this year.