Nqobile Tshili, Chronicle Reporter
FORTY-EIGHT Zimbabweans who were refugees in Botswana returned home yesterday following a joint initiative by Government, Botswana as well as the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
Most of the citizens left the country in 2008 as a result of political violence while others had gone to look for greener pastures.
They are part of the last batch of refugees at Dukwi Refugee Camp, returning under an operation that will run until March 25.
The returnees will receive a Government grant to cushion them as they retrace their roots and additional funds will be provided by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Government will continue providing them with food aid until they harvest in the next farming season.
They were received at the International Organization for Migration (IOM) Plumtree Reception Centre at about 5pm yesterday.
Zimbabwe Ambassador to Botswana Batiraishe Mukonoweshuro was part of the team that welcomed the former returnees back home.
Other officials included Botswana director of refugee management and welfare Ms Thobo Letlhage, UNHCR officials including the country representative in Zimbabwe Mr Abdoulaye Barry and his counterpart based in Botswana.
Some of the returnees are now university students.
To ensure that their studies are not disrupted, the Government is facilitating that they acquire passports so that they return to the neighbouring country to continue with their studies.
Returnees who spoke to our reporter said they were elated to be back home and were hoping to put the past behind them as they chart a new path.
The programme to repatriate the refugees started in 2019 but for the better part of 2020 was put on hold as part of the measures to contain Covid-19 pandemic.
Ms Letlhage said another group of Zimbabweans is expected into the country before the end of the week while a second batch will be coming into the country in two weeks.
“We don’t want to bring a large group at one go as we have to implement Covid-19 containment measures. Also, those who are being repatriated will be having a Covid-19 test certificate. For those who would have tested positive, they will be held until it is safe for them to travel. As the government of Botswana, we committed to assisting the refugees as we believe that their best interest is served when they return to their homes,” said Ms Letlhage.
“We have students who are in different stages at university, hence we are working with the Government of Zimbabwe to ensure that they get passports as soon as possible so that they could return to their studies. For those who are on medication, we are providing them with three months’ supply so that they can take medication while being integrated into the Zimbabwean health system.”
Mr Barry said Zimbabwe was a safe environment hence the refugees’ return.
“They have been in Botswana for various reasons and were being taken care of by UNHCR for more than a decade for some of them.
“The return to their home country is a durable solution for refugees. We have the repatriation which they are doing today, we have the local integration and resettlement in the third country. So, these people today are returning to their own country by repatriation safely and in dignity. There is a good reason for us as UNHCR for us to be happy as they are returning to their home country.
“This shows clearly that their country is safe and they feel safe to come back so that they can be involved in social economic development,” said Mr Barry.
The UNHCR is assisting the Government of Zimbabwe in reintegrating the returnees.
UNHCR is giving all the adults US$520 and minors US$100 as a once off payment.
“UNHCR in Botswana gave them a food package for three months and the commissioner highlighted in his address they will then receive Zimbabwean Government support after those three months,” Mr Barry said.
He said UNHCR will be making follow ups with the returnees as they go back to their communities of their origin to see how they are adjusting.
Zimbabwe commissioner for refugees, Dr Togarepi Tirivavi said Government was providing the returning residents $2 500 as a once off payment as they restart their life in the country.
Ambassador Mukonoweshuro welcomed the returnees on behalf of President Mnangagwa thanking Botswana for its hospitality.
He said he has been in communication with some of the refugees at their base and it was important that they had taken a step to return home.
The returnees were being processed by health authorities, before being handed to immigration and registry officials. — @nqotshili