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The 20th of June is World Refugee Day and for those of us who were once refugees, the day does flood our memories with a mixed bag of fond and bitter emotions. We think of the wonderful hospitality of our host countries and the friendships we enjoyed with some of the citizens of those lands.
In my case, I think of the people of Botswana and Zimbabwe who harboured me and my family for 13 years. My children have happy recollections of their childhood and schooling in Zimbabwe.
Then there is the misery of statelessness and the deprivation of even the most basic of human needs such as food, clothes, shelter and the freedom of movement. Where these were provided, it was at the barest minimum. And all these deprivations are accompanied by the constant fear of being stalked and harmed by the government you ran away from.
We watched, as we observed refugee day this year, thousands of Malians entering Burkina Faso, fleeing the conflict in their country caused by the Tuareg rebellion in the north. The 60 000 Malian refugees are entering Burkina Faso at a time when the United Nations has launched a huge appeal for food aid for the entire Sahel region where endemic drought, poor harvests and high food prices are wreaking havoc with people of the entire west Africa. It is estimated that unless $1.6 billion (about R13bn) worth of emergency aid is raised by the world, 18.7 million people might be at risk of starvation.
These Malian refugees are just the latest additions to a worldwide forced migration problem. Not so long ago we saw thousands of Somalis entering Kenya in an attempt to escape drought and a senseless civil war in their country. Our own Gift of the Givers sent food and doctors to Somalia to lend a hand to those still trapped in their own country.
There were 13 million refugees in the world in 2009, with 6.3 million of them in the Middle East and north Africa. Africa had about 2.7 million refugees while Europe accounted for only 500 000.
Although natural calamities do produce refugees, by far the vast majority is generated by political oppression and the economic difficulties that tend to accompany such misrule. This would explain, at least in part, why Europe, with a much bigger population, has only half a million refugees while Africa and the Middle East have a combined refugee burden of nine million souls. Probably, most of the asylum seekers in Europe are from elsewhere in the world.
So, the greater the levels of democratic participation in a country, the brighter are the chances that the country would not generate refugees. That is why there are no South African or Botswana refugees anywhere in the world, except, of course, Khwezi, who is said to be hiding in Holland since the Zuma rape trial.
Generally speaking, after decolonisation, the Southern African Development Community has done well in as far as democratic processes are concerned. Only Zimbabwe has been generating refugees of both the political and economic variety.
Apart from refugees being an unwelcome manifestation of human cruelty towards others, they are also a terrible drag on development and progress for both the generator and receiver of asylum seekers.
As a general trend, the intelligentsia and other skilled people run away from their country before you see the mass escape of people into exile in a refugee- generating regime. By the time many ordinary Zimbabweans started fleeing their country in large numbers, for instance, a lot of their professional and other skilled compatriots were already long in South Africa and elsewhere.
Thus, the country loses the talents and energies of its people who could be contributing towards its social and economic development. But those who leave without skills are not likely to acquire them as refugees. It is hard for people to develop themselves on the run. But their departure also stunts the socio-economic development of those they leave behind, simply because they reduce the capacity of their society to develop.
Refugees are a burden on the country where they seek asylum in terms of their need for shelter, food, health care, water and education for their children.
Africa, with its huge developmental deficits, cannot afford conditions that generate refugees.
We can only build a better continent if we become intensely intolerant of political oppression and stamp out all dictatorial governments.
That must be done in tandem with a strong posture against foreign interference. More often than not, dictators are sponsored by other governments outside the continent to advance their interests.
*Mosibudi Mangena is a former minister of science and technology.