This article was also published in Refugees Deeply.

The number of refugees in Zambia – now about 60,000 – is growing daily due to internal conflict in the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo. In today’s political climate, one might expect this to trigger a hostile government response, yet the opposite appears to be happening.

The Zambian government has grown more willing to grant freedom of movement to refugees, given residency rights to former refugees from Angola and Rwanda and committed to a new form of settlement for newly arrived refugees from DRC. It is a stark contrast to the global trend of reducing refugee protection, evident in Europe, Australia and even Zambia’s neighbor, South Africa. And it’s a change for Zambia itself.

An Increasingly Refugee-Friendly Country

While Zambia has generally remained open and hospitable to refugees, until recently it required them to remain in camps or settlements. Up until 2017, the reception of refugees was governed by the 1971 Control Act; as the name suggests, the concern was control of refugees. Though Zambia is a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, it did not adopt most of its refugee-rights provisions into national laws.

This restrictive national refugee policy was applied to varying degrees across the state. In Zambia, as in neighboring Tanzania and Uganda, many refugees have found de facto integration in border towns and urban areas, with government officials turning a blind eye to their presence. 

Yet such a laissez-faire approach often leaves those refugees without official permission to live outside a camp in fear of detention, deportation or extortion by corrupt immigration officers.

For decades, the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR has been advocating behind the scenes for Zambia to move away from the traditional camp model. Zambia has a relatively weak civil society, but these UNHCR efforts have been supported by a collection of refugee-run organizations on the ground pushing for better access to rights. There had been some moderate improvements over the past 30 years, but they achieved only sporadic and minor concessions from leaders in this highly urbanized, landlocked Sub-Saharan country.

Lately, however, something appears to have shifted. Firstly, Zambia committed to integrating former Angolan and Rwandan refugees. In 2014, the state created the Strategic Framework for the Local Integration of Former Refugees in Zambia (SFLI), which aimed to regularize the status of 10,000 former Angolan refugees and 4,000 former Rwandan refugees. While there are still issues with implementation, this approach to former Angolan refugees sits in stark contrast to their southern Africa neighbors, South Africa. There has also been significant international pressure on Rwandan refugees to repatriate, but Zambia has resisted this and tried to grant forms of permanent residence to this population from Rwanda.

Secondly, Zambia’s President Edgar Lungu made public commitments in 2016 to relax restrictions on the freedom of movement of refugees in the two main refugee settlements. More refugees were granted urban residence cards. And in 2017, after years of drafts, negotiations with UNHCR, and institutional blockages, Zambia’s Refugee Act No1 was signed into force.

The new act is a positive step. It is far from perfect; for instance, there are still restrictions on refugees’ freedom of movement. Still, advocates hope that wording from specific articles in the act can be interpreted by the Commissioner for Refugees and UNHCR to allow refugees to work in urban areas without the need to apply for expensive visas.

Finally, Zambia recently voluntarily signed up to the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF) – the UNHCR’s blueprint for reforming refugee response. In line with CRRF, Zambia is creating a new type of settlement (the Mantapala settlement) for refugees arriving from DRC.

While there are already concerns about gaps in international funding and lack of infrastructure, Zambia’s commitment does appear more than mere words. There is early buy-in from key ministries and departments involved in the Mantapala project, including employment, health and education.

Lessons from Zambia

Why are we seeing these progressive shifts now? Do they offer any lessons for the implementation of refugee rights around the world?

It is clear that bottom-up and top-down advocacy had only a small effect on state-run policy and practice up until 2017. The driving force for these recent changes appears to be coming not from the international or local level, but rather from the state and specifically, from two personalities: the president, Edgar Lungu, and the newly appointed commissioner for refugees, Abdon Mawere. The president personally intervened to develop the new Refugee Act, and he ignored ministerial departments’ demands that former refugees from Rwanda be repatriated.

During this time of refugee policy change, the state has also been moving towards more of an authoritarian style of governance. Opposition political parties have been threated or imprisoned, civil society silenced, independent press shut down, and Lungu is attempting to extend presidential term limits.

Due to these political maneuvers, Lungu is free to implement programs and initiatives based on self-interest and ideological commitments without being overly concerned about opposition parties or losing a re-election. In line with his Pan-Africanism, the president has a genuine ideological commitment and interest in supporting brothers and sisters from neighboring states.

Yet Zambia’s commitment to sheltering and integrating large numbers of refugees also has international benefits. As seen with Uganda, receiving large numbers of refugees has the potential to make the international community turn a blind eye to declines in democratic principles in the country.

My research suggests that, given the shift towards an authoritarian state, advocacy by UNHCR and others in Zambia should now be top-down, with less emphasis on pushing for “international norms” or the implementation of rights per se. Instead, advocacy could focus on the president himself and to ideological arguments. To be clear, this should not be seen as condoning undemocratic shifts, but rather finding an approach that works for the unique set of circumstances in the specific state.

With the ideological support of the president, Zambia is potentially a useful case study for the new CRRF approach. By fully backing the development of the new Mantapala settlement, UNHCR and international donors could have an excellent model to highlight the benefits of integration programs to neighboring states in the region.

In this time of heated global debate about refugees, Zambia’s current approach stands as something of an oddity. We will need to cautiously wait and see how these recent developments translate on the ground. Still, Zambia’s progressive moves towards refugees’ freedom of movement and right to work suggest ways forward on better refugee practices in the region and elsewhere.

Nicholas Maple, PhD student at The Refugee Law Initiative, is a visiting scholar to the University of New South Wales’ Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law in Sydney, from the Refugee Law Initiative, School of Advanced Study, University of London.

These findings are based on fieldwork conducted at the end of 2017 and start of 2018, while the author was hosted by the Southern African Institute for Policy and Research (SAIPAR) in Lusaka, Zambia. The author is grateful to Marja Hinfelaar and her team.