Developing Our World and the Dzaleka Refugee Camp in Malawi

  • Dzaleka is the largest refugee camp in Malawi.
  • The UNHCR has registered up to 41,109 refugees in Dzaleka refugee camp to date.
  • Malawi is a country in Africa, and despite being one of the poorest countries on earth, it houses a large number of refugees.
  • Due to a weak healthcare system, and severe competition for resources, battling the COVID-19 pandemic could be a challenge for Malawi.

Malawi is a sub-Saharan country located in south-eastern Africa. Often called “the warm heart of Africa,” it is a land-locked country with borders with Tanzania on its northeast, Zambia to its northwest and Mozambique to its east, south, and west.

To deal with the large influx of refugees coming in from several countries, Dzaleka, Malawi’s largest refugee camp was set up in the highlands of Dowa District, which is 50 km from Lilongwe, the capital city. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) set up Dzaleka refugee camp in 1994 to provide refuge to the large numbers of forcibly displaced people who were fleeing genocide, war, and violence in Rwanda, Burundi, and the D.R. Congo.

The Dzaleka Refugee Camp

More than half the population of Malawi survives on less than one US Dollar per day. Most of the people depend on subsistence farming as the industry is limited. The major exports of the country include tea, sugar, coffee, and tobacco. Despite being a poor nation, Malawi still hosts most of its above 41,000 refugees in its Dzaleka Refugee Camp, most of whom originate from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Rwanda, Somalia, and Ethiopia. The rest of the refugees reside in the Mwanza district bordering Mozambique. The refugees fled from their home countries due to reasons revolving around war, human rights violation, environment and climate, and economic hardship.

Before being turned into a refugee camp, the Dzaleka facility used to serve as a political prison for approximately 6,000 inmates. The community that Dzaleka hosts largely on subsistence farming. This host community has remained historically underdeveloped and frequently experiences extreme challenges owing to lack of farming inputs, poor rains, and volatile crop markets.

The Role of the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR)

The UNHCR has registered up to 41,109 refugees in Dzaleka refugee camp to date. As part of its Refugee Coordination Model, it partners with the Ministry of Homeland Security (MHS), Ministry of Health (MoH); Jesuit Refugees Services (JRS), Plan International Malawi (PIM), Welthungerhilfe (WHH), and Churches Action in Relief and Development (CARD) to coordinate activities in the camp. Also, UNHCR collaborates with UN sister agencies like the World Food Programme (WFP), which supplies food to the refugees, as well as other operational partners.

Picture taken by Evaldo José at the entrance to the refugee camp and next to the UNHCR office.

At present, Dzaleka has crossed its absorption capacity as it now hosts above 41,000 asylum seekers and refugees. It was initially built for 10,000 people, so this is a 300% increase from the original number of refugees. As a result, a situation of congestion has been created, and this calls for the adoption and application of principles and strategies that will significantly reduce risks associated with congestion. The COVID-19 pandemic doesn’t help this situation.

Malawi As A Country

Malawi is an African country that gained independence from the British in 1964. After obtaining independence, it became a totalitarian one-party state with Hastings Banda as president until 1994. Now, Malawi has a democratic, multi-party government that is led by an elected president. The current president is Peter Mutharika.

Malawi may have had a democratic political structure along with a peaceful history, but it still remains one of the poorest countries in the world. It has a population of around 18 million and is among the fastest-growing populations of the world. 45.1% of Malawi’s total population is under 15 years old. The life expectancy at birth is 56.7 years for men and 59.9 for women (UN, 2016).

Christianity is the dominant religion in Malawi. The breakdown of the population, according to religion is as follows:

  • Protestant 33.5% (includes Church of Central Africa Presbyterian 14.2%, Seventh Day Adventist/Baptist 9.4%, Pentecostal 7.6%, Anglican 2.3%)
  • Roman Catholic 17.2%
  • Other Christian 26.6%
  • Muslim 13.8%
  • Traditionalist 1.1%
  • Other 5.6%
  • None 2.1% (2018 est.)
The Chewa people performing the Ingoma dance. Photo: Tobias Kumwenda.

The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Malawi

The coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic is the global health crisis that defines our time. It is undoubtedly the biggest challenge that we have faced since World War II. Since its emergence in Wuhan, China, in December 2019, it has spread to every continent except Antarctica, wreaking havoc wherever it went. Much more than just a health crisis, this pandemic has created devastating economic, social, and political crises that are leaving deep scars.

The emerging COVID-19 crisis threatens to affect countries like Malawi disproportionately, not just as a short-term health crisis but also as a devastating economic and social crisis in the coming months and years. At present, only 37 cases of COVID-19 have been detected, three people have died, and nine have recovered in Malawi.

Fortunately, Malawi was one of the last African countries to report its first case of COVID-19. In the past, this country has battled dangerous diseases like HIV, Aids, cholera, and malaria, but dealing with the current pandemic is more challenging because of the highly virulent nature of the disease, and the limitedness of the healthcare resources. With the current level of resources, only 20 people can be tested for the virus daily. Unfortunately, there are just 25 intensive care unit beds and only seven ventilators in the country that has a population of more than 18 million. The healthcare system is very weak, as well as poorly resourced. One factor that may work in Malawi’s favor while dealing with COVID-19 is that the population is young. However, the fact that there is also a lot of untested HIV and TB in the country makes things worse.

The government of Malawi has therefore been trying to prepare for the COVID-19’s arrival in Malawi and to control its impact since February. It laid down a preparedness plan worth £24m, banned gatherings of more than 100 people, suspended international flights, shut down schools and universities, and has been making anyone arriving from China, US or Europe self-isolate. To be extra careful, Peter Mutharika, Malawi’s president, has limited the number of people he meets every day to between 10 to 20 each day.

Warnings about the disease are widely heard in public health announcements and jingles in cities like Lilongwe and Blantyre, they have barely spread to the remote rural areas of the country. This is a matter of concern since 90% of the country’s population resides in these areas, with farming as their main occupation and having limited access to electricity, radio or TV – leading to them not taking the necessary precautions.

Health workers worry that COVD-19 could spread rapidly throughout the country and would be worse than the cholera outbreak of 2013 or hunger in 2002, both of which resulted in the death of a large number of people. Most people in the rural areas don’t even have running water or soap and are already affected by HIV, malaria, or tuberculosis. On top of that, the rural health centers have very few drugs.

Evaldo describing that new refugees are being placed in these tents to be quarantined until they can officially enter the camp. Photo: Ivanovitch.

Consequently, the arrival of the coronavirus has brought a new wave of fear in Malawi. Particularly in the highly overcrowded Dzaleka refugee camp, people are afraid that the disease can affect many. People are praying that the coronavirus does not reach the camp, and the management is taking precautions for the safety of the refugee community. For instance, when new refugees are brought to the camp, they are first put in quarantine in separate tents and moved to the facility only when they have passed the self-isolation phase and have become able to go to the refugee camp.

Developing Our World’s Efforts in Malawi 

Despite the efforts of UNHCR and There is Hope, the conditions of the refugees residing in the Dzaleka refugee camp are troublesome. Apart from being overcrowded, it poses other problems for the refugees, including those related to employment, education, and health. The policies imposed by Malawi to regulate the right to employment and the movement of the refugees limit their opportunities to make a living outside the refugee camp. For this reason, most of the refugees are completely dependent on food aid as well as other external assistance for survival.

It is in this challenging environment that Developing Our World is working with the refugees and their host community by offering access to education, business development, and spiritual development programs. Developing Our World is an organization that works to put holistic community development in action. Miguel Torneire founded it on May 23, 2018, who has over 15 years of experience as a missionary in Guatemala. Under his seasoned guidance, this organization has been exploring and serving communities, developing leaders, and sending short-term teams to Central America and beyond.

The mission of Developing Our World is to develop communities from the grass-root level. Applying this bottom-up approach means that this organization has been seeking to and has been successful in creating a safe environment by building upon a foundation of mutual trust and respect amid people belonging to different cultures. The goal of these efforts is to challenge the status quo in communities and change it via the proclamation and demonstration of the Gospel. This is why Developing Our World serves those in need in their own environment and communities without any discrimination or prejudice and recognizes and honors their gifts, skills, and values.

Evaldo shared pictures of him in front of the school before it was repaired and after.

Developing Our World identifies communities that need its services the most, and then sends teams to serve them. Currently, this organization is supporting Eagles Junior Academy in the refugee camp. This school is maintained and administered by a residents’ association of the community, called Reach Our People’s Needs for Development (RPND). Developing Our World is working to complement the efforts of the parents and of Evaldo José that have been implemented so far. Evaldo José, is a Brazilian educator, radio host, and TV announcer. He decided to leave his job in Brazil to serve as a volunteer in Dzaleka, and that’s how he became the link between Developing Our World and Eagles Junior Academy. Due to his efforts, the organization came to know about the urgent needs of the school that serves the refugee community in the Dzaleka Refugee Camp.

The lack of resources and the extremely high number of refugees living in the refugee camp have resulted in a shortfall in the provision of education. Schools are scarce, and those that are present are in a terrible state. There is a severe lack of funds and necessary resources, so donations and volunteers are the only hope right now. The large child population is at the risk of staying deprived of education if the situation is not improved.

Recognizing this need, Developing Our World, in collaboration with Evaldo, have adopted Eagles Junior Academy. The plan is to repair and maintain the school, and add the required resources so that more children could be accommodated. The organization is repairing and installing windows and doors and making wooden desks and chairs for the students. Currently, the school has more than 80 children aged between 3 and 14 years. After the repair and maintenance of the school, it will become capable of admitting many more children in the next school year.

This is one project that Developing Our World is working on, but the organization aims to broaden its impact by becoming involved in further efforts to improve education, business, and spiritual development. True to its mission of initiating and promoting holistic community development, the organization, under the leadership of Rev. Miguel Torneire, is adamant on serving the poor and needy –to continue Jesus’s work on earth.

“Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the LORD, and he will reward them for what they have done.”

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Miguel Torneire

Is the founder and the Executive Director of Developing Our World, an organization that seeks to put holistic community development into action. He loves Jesus! And, he is a husband, a father, a Lutheran Pastor, a Missionary, an Author, a flamenguista (a supporter of Clube de Regatas do Flamengo soccer team), and a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu practitioner.

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