BY KENNETH MATIMAIRE
NEW refugee arrivals that continue to trickle into the country through undesignated entry points have been flagged as a potential threat to the Tongogara Refugee Camp in Chipinge.
The camp has seen an influx of refugees with 236 new arrivals recorded from February 2020 to date despite the Covid-19-induced lockdown. A total of 196 of the total new arrivals came from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), followed by Mali (29), Burundi (seven) and two from Côte d’Ivoire. Rwanda and Somalia had one new arrival each.
A total of 16 covid-19 positive cases have been recorded at the camp, with nine of the cases emanating from new arrivals.
“The new arrivals coming from across several borders were a potential threat to the refugee population already living in the camp which is a relatively secluded place,” the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) country representative Abdouyale Barry warned.
“In all, nine new arrivals have tested positive for Covid-19 since March 2020 to date. Seven other refugees also tested positive for Covid-19 . . . The Ministry of Health and Child Care facilitated Covid-19 testing,” Barry added.
Barry pointed out that no deaths have been recorded. Though no new arrivals have been received from terrorist-torn Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province, humanitarian experts warned of a potential influx from the neighbouring country, which could endanger the wider population at Tongogara.
A report titled Policy and Practice Brief (PPB) warned that the camp had been seriously exposed to Covid-19. The PPB report discusses the implications of the coronavirus pandemic on border communities, including Tongogara Refugee Camp. “The vulnerability of these people (refugees), who already face a humanitarian crisis of displacement due to wars in the region is worrisome,” the report released in March this year by the African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes (Accord) reads.
In 2017, approximately 5 546 Mozambicans melted into local communities following a civil unrest at the behest of rebels from an opposition outfit — Renamo.
Tongogara received 864 Mozambicans that sought refugee status and 265 children who were in need of education integration.
However, UNHCR indicated that the camp is equipped to combat the spread of Covid-19 from new arrivals. Barry said a quarantine centre was set up to separate new arrivals from the wider refugee population, through guidance from the MoHCC and UNHCR. At the quarantine centre, new arrivals are tested for Covid-19 and released after a negative result and completion of 14 days in quarantine. He added that the government had included the refugee population in the National Covid-19 Response and Deployment Strategy.
“They are thus being treated as any other Zimbabwean citizen in terms of access to Covid-19 vaccines, testing and treatment. As such refugee health staff were vaccinated along with other Zimbabwean health staff during the first phase of vaccinations. Frontline workers including staff are also being vaccinated,” Barry said.
He said UNHCR is looking forward to having other priority groups such as persons with chronic illness vaccinated.
“Although measures have been put in place to isolate community members who return to the camp after visiting Covid-19 hot spots, there is still a danger of the virus being brought into the camp. Some occupants cannot resist the temptation to cross back into Mozambique to visit their relatives. The Tongogara community is also overcrowded and thus at greater risk. While the camp was designed to cater for a maximum of 3 000 people, it now houses about 14 000 people,” the PPB report by Accord reads.
UNHCR confirmed that the camp had a total of 14 967 refugees, largely drawn from DRC, Burundi, Rwanda, Mozambique, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia. The camp also has three educational facilities, namely Early Childhood Development Centre (ECDC), Tongogara Primary and St Michael’s Secondary schools, with a combined enrolment of 4 037 pupils (1 969 girls) and a staff complement of 77 teachers.
Barry said a wide range of measures have been implemented to safeguard both learners and teaching staff.