Blantyre — Malawi police have fired tear gas and clashed with refugees at the country’s overcrowded Dzaleka refugee camp. Witnesses say the clashes broke out after a group of refugees got angry when they did not receive materials for shelter and began breaking windows.
The refugees began rioting Tuesday when they discovered that their names were missing from a distribution list of people they thought were supposed to receive tents and other materials for shelter.
“It all started Friday during the item distribution exercise,” said Sabina Mulepo, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo. “Those who were supposed to receive the items were told that they already received the items while others were told that their names were not on the list.”
Mulepo says the clashes took place when a group of refugees who had lodged a complaint to camp officials felt unsatisfied with the response they got.
Plan International Malawi is among the groups that distributes items to refugees, including tents, soap, clothes and plastic buckets.
The refugees, angry with the organization over the distribution list, broke into a warehouse where Plan International Malawi kept the items, looting some of the relief items there.
The group also smashed two vehicles belonging to Plan International employees.
The situation forced police to use teargas to disperse the rioting refugees who also started throwing stones at police officers.
Gladson M’bumpha is a spokesperson for police in Dowa district where the Dzaleka refugee camp is situated.
“At the moment we have arrested 16 suspects, 12 are from Democratic republic of Congo, three are from Burundi and one is Malawian national. They are charged with an offence of unlawful damage as well as theft,” M’bumpha said.
He says the suspects were expected to appear in court Wednesday.
Some eyewitnesses say a two-year-old child died during the incident after inhaling tear gas. But police spokesperson M’bumpha says they have not received any reports of deaths or injuries from the teargas they were using.
Phoebe Kasoga, the country director for Plan International in Malawi, said the refugees are wrong to accuse them of not providing relief items to those who say they were supposed to get them.
“My understanding is that in terms of identification, we have [Ministry of] Homeland Security, we have UNHCR, and we have camp leaders who lead the process of identification. We don’t have a mandate to choose who is who because we don’t have jurisdiction over refugees in the country. So probably if that is the case, maybe it is the case of misinformation,” she said.
Kenyi Emanuel, the reporting officer at the UNHCR in Malawi, told VOA Wednesday that the U.N. refugee agency will look into the matter once the situation in the camp normalizes.
“UNHCR hasn’t been able to go to the camp today although the situation is reported to be calm. UNHCR temporarily suspended the verification exercise yesterday and this will resume when the situation returns to normalcy,” he said.
However police say they have now beefed up security at the camp to prevent any additional violence.
Last month, a group of refugees at the camp seized a vehicle belonging to the World Food Program to protest what they said was their removal from the food ration list.