Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

Malawian Refugee Policy, International Politics and the One-Party Regime

Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

Malawian Refugee Policy, International Politics and the One-Party Regime

Article excerpt

The peace agreement signed on 4 October 1992 between the Mozambican government and the Mozambican National Resistance (Renamo) ended a 16-year civil war(2) that has left an estimated 1 million people dead, devastated the country's economic and social infrastructures and compelled more than 1.7 million people -- the largest registered refugee population in Africa -- to seek refuge in neighboring countries.(3) The majority, about 1.1 million in October 1992, have found asylum in Malawi, one of the most densely populated countries in Africa and among the world's poorest nations,(4) as well as a long-time South African ally and Frelimo opponent.(5) Since 1986, the Malawian government has implemented and remains committed to a policy that not only has received international attention and praise from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the U.S. State Department, but also has contrasted sharply with its human rights record(6) and with the number of forced repatriations and mistreatment of refugees occurring in Europe, North America and Asia.

Malawi's response to the refugee crisis follows a common trend among African countries of asylum which, when confronted with political and economic problems and refugee movements of great magnitude, embrace an open door policy and ensure the protection of refugees.(7) Malawi's refugee policy, while firmly rooted on the African continent, remains ill-understood and little-explained, save for the idea offered by both international agencies and African governments of the shared ethnic ties between refugees and hosts.

The objective of this article is to identify the variables which account for the nature and formulation of Malawian policy toward the arrival and settlement of Mozambican refugees from 1986 to 1993. Specifically, it will show that Malawian refugee policy was historically produced; reflected the natural and structural economic constraints of the country; and resulted from the one-party regime's desperate quest to ensure its survival in the midst of increasing domestic and international pressures for democratization following the end of the Cold War and political change in South Africa.


The recent history of Mozambican refugees in Malawi and the response of the Malawian government can be divided into two main periods: the 1970s to 1986, characterized by sporadic and temporary movements of Mozambicans finding refuge and assistance among local Malawians; and late 1986 to 1993, in which a massive influx of refugees led to the implementation of an international program of assistance. Thus, one can differentiate between these two periods by the nature of the influx and the identities of the actors involved.

Sporadic movements of Mozambicans across the Malawian border were reported regularly during the 1970s and the early 1980s in the Mulanje and Dedza districts.(8) During this initial stage, assistance was provided mainly by the community in which the refugees self-settled. The local residents usually shared housing, food, water and land with the refugees, who were displaced by what were then perceived as temporary disturbances. If and when the refugees reported their status to the district police, they were given temporary sheiter and food.(9) At the time, there was no UNHCR presence in Malawi,(10) and the Malawian government had not yet ratified the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees or its 1967 Protocol.

By the end of 1986, the number of Mozambican refugees had increased dramatically. Over a six-month period, more than 70,000 Mozambicans sought refuge in five districts inside Malawi (Dedza, Ntcheu, Chikwawa, Nsanje and Mulanje), bringing their estimated total in the country to 100,000.(11) This first large influx of refugees into Malawi resulted from a shift in Malawian policy vis-a-vis Renamo. The mass movement took place a few weeks after the leaders of Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe visited President Kamuzu Banda of Malawi, charging that Renamo was operating from Malawian bases and threatening him with sanctions. …

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