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UN Resettles Albino Refugees Due to Threats in Malawi

  • Lameck Masina

FILE - Albino twins are seen in Africa, March 29, 2005.

Since June of last year, the U.N. refugee agency in Malawi has been resettling albino refugees to North America, amid continued threats to people living with albinism in the southern African country.

The agency says albino refugees in Malawi are reporting harassment, such as one refugee, now resettled to Canada, who said people kept trying to cut his hair.

People with albinism — an absence of pigment in their skin, hair and eyes — are attacked in Malawi and other parts of Africa because of false beliefs that potions made from their body parts bring good luck and wealth.

The UNHCR says at least 20 people with albinism have been killed in the country since 2014. More than 100 other albino individuals, including children, have faced rights violations including abductions and grave exhumations.

"The situation created fear among persons with albinism, as they are regularly referred to as [a] money or cash machine," said Sebastian Herwig, the associate resettlement officer for the UNHCR in Malawi. "We requested the Malawi government to expedite the refugee status determination procedure for those cases that were still asylum seekers due to their vulnerability."

Sebastian Herwig, left, of the associate resettlement officer for the UNHCR in Malawi, poses with UHCR Protection Officer Gloria Muleba Mukama outside the UNHCR offices in the capital Lilongwe. (L. Masina/VOA)
Sebastian Herwig, left, of the associate resettlement officer for the UNHCR in Malawi, poses with UHCR Protection Officer Gloria Muleba Mukama outside the UNHCR offices in the capital Lilongwe. (L. Masina/VOA)

For the past year, the United Nations has been screening eligible albino refugees and their families at the Dzaleka refugee camp in Malawi. It is home to more than 30,000 people, mainly from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Rwanda, Ethiopia and Somalia.

Six families have been relocated to Canada. U.N. officials are processing the resettlement of a seventh family taking part in the program. The officials asked VOA not to publish the remaining number of families who have applied for resettlement for safety reasons.

The program is for refugees, though Malawians with albinism also remain under threat.

Last year, following the murder of a two-year-old albino child in central Malawi, President Peter Mutharika addressed the nation and vowed to stop the attacks.

Government spokesperson Nicholas Dausi says authorities are doing what they can.

"We have deployed the police in all areas where there are schools with people with albinism to protect them," he said. "And also, we have taken an initiative that in villages where there are family or families of people with albinism, there is a constant surveillance."

Meanwhile, in the four districts in Malawi with the most incidents, U.N. agencies are distributing protective materials such as lights, reflector jackets, bicycles and whistles to people with albinism.

However, the president of the Association of People with Albinism in Malawi, Overstone Kondowe, says the threat is regional. He cited the murder of a 12-year-old Malawian boy with albinism last month in neighboring Mozambique, where he was visiting relatives.

"And we also had a robbery case of a graveyard in Nsanje, as well as Thyolo, the same month of May," Kondowe said. "This demonstrates that there is still some [holes] in our security initiatives and strategies that we are using."

Kondowe says security measures are not enough, and there needs to be a widespread education campaign to debunk the false beliefs about people living with albinism.

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