Feature: Lesotho marks the end of an era for apartheid's refugees
News Stories, 26 August 2002
MASERU, Lesotho (UNHCR) – The UN refugee agency recently handed over to the government of Lesotho buildings that used to house apartheid's refugees from South Africa, bearing witness to the fact that no refugee problem is permanent.
In late July, UNHCR formally handed over to the Lesotho government 48 low-cost brick houses which were used over three decades to house refugees from neighbouring countries – mainly South Africa – until the early 1990s.
The houses and one reception centre are situated in four different locations in and around Maseru, the capital of this small mountain kingdom, landlocked in South African territory.
Although refugee numbers had considerably dwindled from the early 1990s, when South Africa returned to democratic rule, the houses had remained in the possession of the UN refugee agency. They were, however, already being used by the government for rent to civil servants and people in need of housing.
"This is common procedure when a refugee crisis is over," said Bemma Donkoh, UNHCR's Representative in South Africa, who covers Lesotho. "Just as we would hand over facilities and infrastructures, restore the site and undertake the reforestation of an area after a refugee camp is closed, we decided to hand over these houses in Lesotho – so that they can be put to a useful cause."
The houses will be used by the government as accommodation for the disadvantaged and as office blocks.
The UN refugee agency gradually pulled out of Lesotho in the mid-1990s, as apartheid ended and led to a transitional process that culminated in democratic elections in 1994. The closure of the UNHCR office was a tacit acknowledgement that the critical phase of asylum had ended for Lesotho, a country that had never failed its tradition of hospitality, even during the darkest years of its neighbour's oppressive regime.
Lesotho's refugee history is closely linked to that of apartheid South Africa. The influx of refugees started in the mid-1960s, at a time when liberation movements were banned in South Africa and their leaders imprisoned. In the 1970s and 1980s, and particularly after the 1976 Soweto Youth uprising, the small kingdom – along with Botswana and Swaziland – became a safe haven for political opponents, some of them later joining the African National Congress (ANC) leadership in exile, in Tanzania or Zambia.
"Lesotho was one of the countries that was used as an underground route into exile," said Mrs Donkoh.
But while some refugees officially requested asylum under the auspices of UNHCR and the government, many others did not, for security reasons. Yet they were allowed to remain in the country and stayed in homes of local people. In 1988, as apartheid started to wind down, Lesotho hosted some 4,000 refugees from South Africa, while there were 7,000 in Swaziland and several thousands in Botswana.
"Lesotho is hardly your typical asylum country," said Mrs Donkoh. "Its geographic situation, and its economic dependence – in terms of jobs, particularly – from its mighty neighbour, made it very vulnerable. The country's generous asylum policy was extended at great risk to its own citizens," she explained.
On several occasions, and in particular at the height of repression in 1985-86, the Pretoria regime threatened many of the so-called Front-line States – South Africa's immediate neighbours – which were accused of harbouring dangerous dissidents. It imposed an economic embargo on Lesotho, preventing it from flying its planes over South African territory and blocking food imports. That is also why "many Basotho [Lesotho nationals] died with the refugees in 1982 when the South African forces attacked Lesotho", said the country's Minister of Home Affairs, Thomas Thabane, at the recent hand-over ceremony.
Yet Lesotho always defended a policy of integrating refugees into Basotho society, a principle that is still alive today. Unlike some other countries in Africa, refugees were not put in separate camps. Students were allowed to attend local schools and the National University of Lesotho even became a hub of education for most refugees from South Africa.
In 1990, the release of South Africa's Nelson Mandela signalled the end of apartheid and changed the face of the region, allowing thousands of South African exiles to return home in safety. The South African government approached UNHCR to help with the return of refugees and political exiles. In 1991, a blanket amnesty was granted to all exiles and refugees. The UN refugee agency started a voluntary repatriation; many thousands more returned on their own.
Today Lesotho, faithful to its tradition of hospitality and integration, still hosts some 60 refugees. They originate from countries as varied as Sudan, Uganda, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Zimbabwe. Many of the refugees are teachers, nurses or doctors, and they are self-sufficient. Some of them are married to local residents. UNHCR currently has no assistance programme in Lesotho.
At the hand-over ceremony, the Minister of Home Affairs concluded his speech with a passionate plea for Africans to take their fate into their own hands and solve conflicts peacefully. "Refugee status is not what Africa should be proud of. Refugees continue to flood the face of Africa just because one African fights against another African for power. This calls upon all Africans to ponder very seriously about the scourge of refugees."
Lesotho is a signatory of the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol (both signed in 1981) as well as the OAU 1969 Convention, and has been an active member of UNHCR's Executive Committee since 1979.
By Delphine Marie