The Malawian government has ordered thousands of long-integrated refugees to return to its sole but badly overcrowded refugee camp, in a controversial move that many have vowed to resist.
The UN estimates there are around 2,000 refugees residing outside the camp at Dzaleka, about 40 kilometres (30 miles) north of the capital Lilongwe.
Many have lived there for years, setting up businesses in the town or marrying Malawians and having children with them.
But the government argues they pose a potential danger to national security by living among locals.
“We are not chasing them, and we just want them to be where they should be,” Homeland Security Minister Richard Chimwendo told AFP.
“Those who have businesses… will have to operate from Dzaleka.”
“If they are married they must apply for permanent residence” instead of “just spreading themselves across the country.”
“We are not sending them back to their countries,” he argued.
The UN refugee agency UNHCR in Malawi said the directive was in line with the country’s encampment laws, but advised the government to reconsider.
It said, according to an official communication it received from the Homeland Security ministry, the decision was also taken in the light of “security concerns in order to protect both refugees and host communities following the volatile situation in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado area”.
But Chimwendo said the decision to relocate the refugees was not linked to the insurgency in neighbouring northern Mozambique, where jihadists have wreaked havoc for over three years.
With an initial capacity of between 10,000 and 14,000 refugees around 1994, the camp now houses 49,386 people and several hundred continue to arrive each month, according to the UNHCR.
The deadline for refugees to return to the camp was April 28, but a last-minute court injunction gave them a brief respite.