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Flipping the Narrative: How Malawi is telling me and other refugees we don’t belong

‘It is as if they have been waiting to treat us this way.’

A black and white illustration showing a character sewing up a question mark on their chest. Ramiro Zardoya/Cartoon Movement

In May, hundreds of refugees were rounded up in Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi, and forcibly relocated to Dzaleka refugee camp, around 40 kilometres outside the city. I have lived in Dzaleka for over 20 years, and I have never before witnessed such desperation among the refugees here.

People are facing the prospect of having to start from scratch in a place with few resources or opportunities. The amount of support from the international community is also insufficient. 

The camp was built to house around 10,000 people who escaped genocidal violence in Rwanda and Burundi in the 1990s. It’s now home to more than 50,000 people, including many Congolese refugees. Shortages of medicine, water, and sanitation facilities were already rampant. The forced relocation of hundreds of formerly self-sufficient and productive refugees is only making the situation worse and spreading fear among refugees about what could happen next. 

I had heard about the government’s order for all refugees to return to Dzaleka – the only permanent refugee camp in the country – on the radio. But I didn’t believe it would actually be enforced. Similar news has been broadcast before, but no action had been taken. 

Malawian law requires refugees to live in the camp. But around 8,000 were living in Lilongwe and other parts of the country, after receiving special permits from the government. They were well integrated into local communities — many learned local languages — and they actively contributed to the economy through farming or running small businesses that sold groundnuts, maize, and cooking oil or shops that sold biscuits, soap, donuts, other snacks, and soft drinks. 

Those people have now been stripped of everything they had built. I have seen many of the refugees who were forcibly relocated sleeping outdoors due to a lack of proper housing. In general, housing in Dzaleka consists of temporary structures made of plastic sheets, mud bricks, and thatched roofs, even though the camp has existed for almost 30 years. 

Some of the new arrivals have been sleeping in abandoned houses with walls that look like they could collapse and that don’t have doors, windows, or roofs. Others found temporary shelter with friends and family. Most arrived with nothing, having fled from the soldiers who were rounding people up. They spent days separated from their relatives and children. 

Dehumanisation and fear

I visited one of the forcibly relocated families at a transit point in Dzaleka, set up to house them as they arrived. The accommodation was full, and some people were sleeping outside or in their cars. The people I spoke to said they were heartbroken by how the Malawian soldiers had treated them. They had been dehumanised and insulted, they told me. 

“It is as if they have been waiting to treat us this way,” one man, originally from Rwanda, told me. “They insulted me and my wife when we tried to reason with [the soldiers], asking them to be more considerate because there was no reason for them to be hostile towards us. They forcefully pushed me aside while harshly handling my two sons.” 

“It is as if they have been waiting to treat us this way.”

The man said the soldiers had entered his shop, stole money from the checkout counter, and helped themselves to soft drinks. “I vividly recall what they said to my wife and me after they loaded us onto the truck: ‘You must return to your country; this is just the beginning,’” the man added. 

Now, the family is in Dzaleka with nothing. They had to leave their belongings behind in Lilongwe. The man is worried about how he will feed his family and provide his children with an education. 

Many of the Burundian refugees I spoke to said they fear being forced to return to Burundi. People have deep-seated fears about going back. They think they may be killed or disappeared. We have heard rumours about this happening to others who have gone back. These fears are stoked by the fact that people in Dzaleka can’t trace what happened to many of those who have gone back. They stop hearing from them and aren’t able to find them on any social media platform. It’s as if they vanish without a trace. People from Rwanda have similar fears. 

‘Refugees no longer feel secure’

I have lived in Malawi for nearly my entire life. I have formed deep connections and friendships with both fellow refugees and members of the local community. These relationships have grown so close that we consider each other as brothers and sisters. I have become fluent in the local language to the point where you wouldn’t even suspect that I am a refugee if you didn’t know my background. The interactions and cultural exchanges with Malawians have given me a strong sense of belonging. 

I have also seen Malawians work for more affluent refugees, and through these interactions, we have learned about each other’s cultures and languages. Some Malawians have even become proficient in languages that refugees speak, like Kinyarwanda, Swahili, and Kirundi. This has all fostered a sense of unity and shared understanding. 

Once again, we find ourselves waiting for solutions we do not control.

However, given the recent events and the current circumstances, I must admit that my feelings of belonging have been shaken. I feel like I no longer belong here.

Even in the camp, refugees no longer feel secure. I firmly believe that something will happen. Maybe the camp will be relocated to another region of the country farther away from the capital. Or maybe we will be forced to return to Rwanda and Burundi. 

Once again, we find ourselves waiting for solutions we do not control: The prospect of being able to legally integrate into Malawian society seems further away than ever; returning to our home countries still appears too dangerous; and the possibility of being resettled to a third country where we’d be able to lead full, dignified lives remains little more than a dream. 


Edited by Eric Reidy.

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