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Asylum and refugee policies in Southern Africa: A historical perspective

1. Introduction

The Southern African region1 has had a long experience with the phenomenon of forced migration. Forcible population displacement is known to have taken place in the region even in pre-colonial and colonial times. In modern times, this phenomenon may be traced in the early 1960s when wars of liberation in countries like South Africa, Namibia , Mozambique, Angola and Zimbabwe forced thousands of people from these countries into neighbouring countries and beyond. In the 1970s and 1980s, many more persons were forced to flee as civil wars in places like Angola and Mozambique became another cause of population displacement. In the 1990s, the region continued to experience the refugee problem, but this time mainly as a host of refugees from within and outside the region.

Asylum and refugee polices in Southern Africa may be said to have gone through three generations. The first generation refugee policies were characterised by the absence of refugee specific laws, with refugee matters being addressed under general immigration laws. This approach was taken during the colonial period but it continued in some countries even thereafter.

The second generation refugee policies were marked by the introduction of refugee specific laws but which were mainly intended to control rather than protect refugees. This approach was dominant throughout the 1970s and 1980s. However, despite patently refugee unfriendly legislation, refugee practice in the region during this period was generous.

The third generation of asylum and refugee policies begun in the 1980s, and was characterised by the introduction of protection oriented refugee legislation which approximated the international instruments on refugees. Currently, most countries in the region have comparable refugee protection statutes which incorporate the basic principles of a sound refugee regime including provisions on the definition of a refugee which accorded with the relevant international instruments, institutions and procedures for refugee status determination, non-refoulement and standards of treatment. A number of statutes also allude to solutions to the plight of refugees.

The introduction of comparable refugee legislation in the region is a positive step towards addressing the refugee problem in the region. However, it is only the first step. It must be followed regulations to implement the substantive provisions and other measures aimed at addressing other issues in refugee policy such as the uneven distribution of the refugee burden and elimination of root causes of forced migration. These measures must be conceived in the context of relevant regional and continental initiatives such as the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD).

  1. For the purposes of this paper, the Southern African region is conceived as the member states of the Southern African Development Community (SADC). Its current membership comprises the states of Angola, Botswana, Democratic Republic of Congo, Lesotho, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland, Seychelles, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

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