KASUBA MULENGA, New York
HUMANITY has continually been on the move, with some people migrating in search of new economic prospects, others fleeing armed brawls, food insecurity, terrorism or human rights ruins and cruelties.
Still, others find themselves traversing the breadth and length of the globe in response to the adverse effects of climate change, natural calamities, or other environmental dynamics.
It is these migratory societies who in other words are referred to as refugees, the term which is not odd to Zambia which has been home to thousands of such people who fled their native countries due to civil strife.
With Zambia currently hosting 55,000 people of concern mainly from Angola, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Rwanda and Somalia, it is one of the few countries hosting refugees, and offering full local integration to some former Angolan refugees.
This is the premise upon which United States (US) President Barack Obama invited President Lungu to make a special presentation at the 71st United Nations (UN) General Assembly high-level meeting on addressing the large movements of refugees and migrants in New York last week.
It was the first time the UN General Assembly called for a summit at heads of state and government level on mass movements of refugees and migrants, a historic opportunity for global leaders to come up with a blueprint for a better international response.
The summit on refugees and migrants attracted participation of over 100 world leaders who convened at the UN headquarters in the bustling US empire state of New York.
It was co-hosted by the US, Zambia, Ethiopia, Canada, Mexico, Germany, Sweden and Jordan.
This is in view of the fact that the world has witnessed unprecedented escalating numbers of asylum seekers, refugees, stateless and internally displaced persons now standing at about 60 million, due to a myriad social economic aspects such as war, conflict, persecution, violent extremism, disaster and poverty, among others.
By the end of 2015, there were over 21 million refugees, three million people on the verge of seeking asylum and 40 million displaced within the precincts of their home countries.
That is why when President Lungu arrived in New York on September 15 for the 71st UN General Assembly, it was not business as usual. This time around, he had an extra duty to make a special presentation on the refugee situation in Zambia and share with the international community, the countryâ€™s experience in dealing with refugee issues.
â€œZambia has been a long-standing home to refugees from neighbouring countries in the region as well as from the Horn of Africa. Two years after gaining independence, in 1966, the first refugee settlement was established in the western part of the country, followed by another in North-Western Province in 1971,â€ President Lungu shared with other leaders.
â€œAt the peak of conflicts in Southern Africa, Zambia hosted more than 300,000 refugees in six refugee settlements, four of which have since been closed. Between 2008 and 2012, more than 210,000 Angolan refugees were assisted to return to their country.â€
Today, about 23,000 former Angolan refugees have been fully integrated in the Zambian society. This is in addition to the over 6,000 former Rwandan refugees.
Towards the end of 2011, the government pledged to locally integrate 10,000 former Angolan refugees following the cessation of their refugee status, a durable solution which was extended to 4,000 former Rwandan refugees who equally lost their status after their cessation clause was invoked in 2013.
â€œI wish to report that we have made important strides in the integration of former Angolan refugees with about 8,000 having been processed for the issuance of residence permits which will accord affected refugees the freedoms and rights closer to those of Zambians,â€ he said.
President Lunguâ€™s administration has further provided land for resettlement of former refugees for farming and other income-generating endeavours.
To this end, close to 2,000 plots worth over US$3 million have been demarcated in the resettlement schemes for allocation to former refugees and Zambians on a one-to-one basis.
â€œThis is one way that as a country, we believe we can ensure that former refugees and host communities live in harmony. We may extend the local integration programme to refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo who have lived in the country for more than 10 years in the same spirit,â€ Mr Lungu told a high-level meeting.
Zambia has over the past decades left its door wide open and has continued to welcome new refugee arrivals from eastern DRC, Burundi and Somalia who now live in camps and urban areas of the country.
Of the 52,419 refugees and former refugees currently living in the country, 20,406 reside outside the settlements despite Zambia having made a reservation to Article 26 of the 1951 UN Convention on the status of refugees on freedom of movement.
â€œFurther, we intend to relax the encampment policy by easing the processes for acquiring urban residency and authority to leave the camps whilst ensuring the maintenance of security for our people,â€ President Lungu said.
This particular decree is perhaps what has immensely elated the United Nations High Commissione for Refugees (UNHCR) in Zambia, which has welcomed President Lunguâ€™s commitment to consider the possibility of relaxing the encampment policy to enhance refugeesâ€™ freedom of movement.
The UN refugee agency said easing the encampment policy is a landmark development which will increase refugeesâ€™ ability to positively contribute to the growth of the Zambian economy by using their skills and entrepreneurial spirit possessed by many of them.
â€œAs UNHCR, we call on our cooperating partners to continue supporting the Government of Zambia in its efforts to care for and protect refugees,â€ UNHCR representative in Zambia Laura Lo Castro shared.
And UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said the global refugee agency is heartened to see the strong political commitments in the New York Declaration made through the new, concrete actions announced by various government leaders at the summit for refugees.
â€œInternational solidarity for refugees means governments stepping up and providing fast, predictable funding, investing in host countries and communities, and giving refugees the right to live, work or study in their countries â€“ and through that, a fighting chance to rebuild their lives,â€ he espoused.
Accordingly, President Lungu underscored his governmentâ€™s vow to double efforts to provide education to refugee children in the settlements on the understanding that an educated refugee has better prospects than an illiterate one, whether they choose to return to their country of origin or not.
â€œTo promote self-reliance, my government has put in place measures for refugees to access work and engage in businesses of their choice,â€ he said.
The Zambian delegation to the 71st UN General Assembly has since welcomed the adoption of the outcome document of the high-level meeting, which among other things, has stressed the need for refugee host countries to be supported in key life-saving sectors, such as water and sanitation, nutrition, healthcare and shelter, as well as backing to community based development initiatives.
The outcome document of the high-level forum, otherwise being referred to as the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, apexes the commitments made by various governments on how best to respond to the growing global phenomenon of mass movements of refugees and migrants.
â€œLarge movements of refugees and migrants have political, economic, social, developmental, humanitarian and human rights ramifications, which cross all borders. These are global phenomena that call for global approaches and global solutions. No one state can manage such movements on its own,â€ the New York Declaration reads in part.
For President Lungu, his administration aligns itself with the commitments outlined in the high-level meeting outcome document.
This is with the conviction that these goings-on will help ease the agony of the escalating numbers of people, who are in most instances, forced to flee their homes in pursuit for safety due to civil strife and climate change, among other dynamics.
KASUBA MULENGA, New York