Since mid-January, an estimated 2,000 people have fled fighting between the government and former rebels in Mozambique, spilling into neighbouring Malawi, but they are yet to receive assistance as the Malawian government and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) remain in disagreement about their status as asylum seekers.
UNCHR country representative George Kuchio said that his agency was ready to provide assistance but that the government had classified the new arrivals as returning Malawians.
“In their estimation, these people were not asylum seekers and so they insisted that they will provide assistance themselves through their Disaster Management Unit,” Kuchio told IRIN.
He described the group as a “mixed population” that includes at least 300 Mozambicans, based on an assessment that UNHCR conducted over the weekend. “We feel these are people who should be provided with shelter, clean water, medication and food,” he said. “But for us to render assistance, we have to have a meeting of minds with the government.”
Davis Sado, a spokesperson with Malawi’s Ministry of Home Affairs, told IRIN that the cultural homogeneity of people living on either side of the border was making it difficult for the government to determine how many of the refugees were actually Mozambican nationals.
The interviewed populations were families claiming Mozambican nationality while others were of Malawi origins but reside in Mozambique,” he said. “There is also unwillingness of the concerned subjects to be relocated to a camp for proper management.”
The resurgence of fighting between the government and Renamo, a former rebel movement turned opposition party, began last year in central and northern Mozambique.
Sado said the government was mobilizing a response, but the only assistance the refugees have so far received is from local villagers in districts near Malawi’s western border with Mozambique, including Mwanza, Chikwawa and Neno.
“A very dangerous journey”
Yakobo Labisoni, 38, left Mozambique with his family in mid-January when fighting flared between government forces and Renamo gunmen near their home in Zobue District, in the north-western province of Tete.
"That day [they] fought fiercely; we saw the injured and dead militias being taken away. That was when I decided to take my family away," he told IRIN.
Labisoni was a child in 1977, when civil war broke out between ruling party Frelimo and its rival, Renamo. Labisoni’s parents took him to Malawi for safety, and the war raged on for another 16 years, killing up to a million people and displacing five million others. Now, Labisoni has returned to Malawi to ensure the safety of his wife, mother and six children.
They joined scores of other families who left their village and walked for nearly 24 hours to reach the Malawian border.
"It was a very dangerous journey, but we had to take it. We took turns carrying the children, hence we did not bring a lot of personal belongings with us,” he said.
Labisoni is among 551 Mozambicans who have found refuge in Kasipe 2 Village, in Mwanza District.
Village headman William Mitiwe said the village had set up a committee to receive the Mozambicans and settle them where plots were available.
"There is nothing we can do but to settle them in the way we can manage," he said.
He added that officials from the departments of immigration, police and health and those from UNCHR had visited the refugees and questioned them, but that no statements had been made about their status.
"We are just waiting for government to come in to help these people. They have spent over 40 days in Malawi, and a lack of action on the part of the government is forcing some people to leave, and we do not know where they are going," he said.
"All we want is to settle down here until the [October 2014] elections in Mozambique are over. However, we are receiving a lot of visitors asking us a lot of questions. Now we wonder whether we did the right thing coming here,” said Labisoni.
Shelter, food needed
There are fears that fighting in Mozambique could escalate ahead of the October general elections.
Medeliya Ludaviko, a mother of seven, also from Zobue District in Tete Province, said she decided to leave before the fighting reached her village. “When we saw groups of people from areas deep in Mozambique passing through our villages into Malawi, we thought of leaving too. These people were talking about war in some areas they were coming from,” she said.
Ludaviko is now sharing a one-room hut in Kasipe 2 Village with her husband and children. "What we need is food and shelter,” she told IRIN. “We are surviving on piece work [casual labour] and sleeping in these makeshift huts that have no proper roofing.”
She added: “We do not want to go back to Mozambique."
Mwanza District Commissioner Gift Rapozo said that 1,821 people had so far arrived in his district from Mozambique. "These people need food and shelter quickly since this is the rainy season. We also need to intervene on sanitation and the security of both the people coming from Mozambique and Malawians," he said.