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ZAMBIA: UNHCR tackles HIV/AIDS in refugee camps

Lusaka, 9 August 2001 (PlusNews) - They had lost literally everything – their homes, their families, and their sense of security – and crossed the border into Zambia in the hope of a fresh start in life. Instead, they were met with disappointment as restrictive laws prevented them from leaving the refugee camps they were housed in and from engaging in salaried employment. Human rights watchers allege that the limitations that Zambian law imposes on refugees means they are often unable to realise their full potential and could point to a growing tendency towards xenophobia. Expression of these concerns is being led by the Catholic Church of Zambia, which in June issued a pastoral letter deploring laws that denied refugees the rights to move freely, engage in salaried work, own property and hold a nationality. For a growing number of women in the refugee camps, the way out of exclusion and deprivation lies in finding an indigenous male partner. Marriage to a local means a female refugee can automatically assume Zambian citizenship, while less permanent relationships imply at least a level of material support. Such ‘marriages of convenience’ have inadvertently excited a backlash from concerned locals. Recently, for example, Zambian women in some northern communities bordering the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) lodged a formal complaint with the ministry of home affairs about refugee women “stealing” their husbands. For humanitarian organisations working with refugees, such marriages present another, perhaps more serious, problem: the spread of HIV/AIDS among vulnerable refugees. Zambia has one of the highest incidences of HIV/AIDS in the world, with an estimated 20 percent of its 10 million people believed to be HIV-positive. The effects of the epidemic saw life expectancy in the country slipping from 43 years in 1995 to around 37 years in 1997. The number of children orphaned by HIV/AIDS, meanwhile, was estimated at 360,000 four years ago. No scientific studies into the prevalence of HIV/AIDS infection among refugees has been carried out so far, but experts assume that displaced people separated from their families and with no independent source of income, may be more susceptible to the threat of HIV/AIDS than other groups. Moreover, the refugee population has so far being excluded from interventions aimed at slowing down the rate of HIV-infection. A concerted campaign targeted at the youth in Zambia that is credited with curbing the rate of HIV-infection among urban teenagers, for example, has not been extended to the refugee camps. Consequently, UNHCR has embarked on an aggressive anti-AIDS campaign targeted at slowing down the rate of HIV-infection in the refugee camps. Working with an initial budget of US $200,000, the UN agency will conduct studies into the prevalence of HIV/AIDS infection among refugees. It will also conduct a concerted awareness campaign to discourage the spread of HIV/AIDS in the camps. “Among other things, we will set up youth clubs to educate the refugee population about HIV/AIDS and reproductive health. We will also intensify the condom distribution exercise in the camps,” UNHCR public information assistant Kelvin Shimo told IRIN. Several other humanitarian organisations, including Care International and the local Family Health Trust are working with UNHCR in the anti-AIDS drive among refugees. Zambia has the highest number of refugees in southern Africa, most of them from Angola and the DRC, and the numbers continue to rise every month as fighting in the two countries persists. According to new statistics released by UNHCR in June, the total number of refugees in the country rose by around 3,000 to around 258,000 over the past year. The refugees include some 200,000 Angolans and around 50,000 Congolese, as well as several thousand from Burundi and Rwanda. Most of them live in long-term refugee camps in northern and western Zambia. But while the number of refugees in the country continues to rise, donor support is dwindling and living conditions in the camps are deteriorating. Early this year, hundreds of refugees at an under-funded camp in the north of the country ran riot in protest against allegedly inadequate food supplies. Unless the donor community commits more resources to refugee programmes in the country, UNHCR fears that its anti-AIDS programme may be curtailed. “We hope to intensify the AIDS awareness campaign among refugees next year, but it will all depend on donor support,” Shimo said.

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