The head of the UN Agency for Refugees (UNHCR) office in Pemba, Margarida Loureiro, says there are still reports of gunfire and houses burning in some areas of Palma. With more than 70,000 people forcibly displaced from that district alone, the situation for humanitarian agencies operating in Cabo Delgado continues to be one of intense work under high alert.
In an interview with DW Africa, Loureiro says that it is not possible to say objectively whether the town of Palma continues to be dominated by the terrorists, because humanitarian access is restricted in several areas north of Cabo Delgado. “What we do have are the reports of people who have left Palma [and are] in extreme need,” she explains.
The UNHCR head in Pemba points out that her team is receiving thousands of Mozambicans forcibly returned from Tanzania. “This is a clear violation of the principle of non-return of someone seeking to save their life and seeking asylum in another country,” she says. Border authorities have registered 9,600 people “returned” from Tanzania since January.
DW Africa: How is the situation in Palma right now?
Margarida Loureiro (ML): People who are being forcibly displaced from their homes, from their lands, bring the most terrifying reports. The situation in Palma remains very unstable. People report that they hear gunshots at night, that there are houses that continue to burn in some areas – which has led these people and families, often separated as well, to seek other places to safeguard their lives. This is the reality we’ve been seeing since March 24th. Already more than 70,000 people are forcibly displaced from the district of Palma alone.
DW Africa: Is the town [of Palma] still occupied by terrorists, as the Mozambican newspaper O País says?
ML: We don’t have this information, so I can’t answer the question objectively, and we do not have access to the Palma area either. Humanitarian access is restricted in several areas in the north of Cabo Delgado. What we have are the accounts of people leaving Palma, people who are in dire need not only of protection and safeguarding their most basic rights, but also of basic services such as access to food and water. This is the situation reported by people fleeing Palma.
DW Africa: Where do people flee to?
ML: To wherever they can. At the beginning of the attacks in Palma, we had a great exodus to Pemba in various kinds of boats and also by plane. But, in fact, most of these families are not in Pemba – they are in Mueda and Nangade districts. Montepuez and Ancuabe have also received many families. Metuge, which is an hour from Pemba, and Balama and Chiúre also take people in people, as also do Mecufi and the island of Ibo, which is also quite vulnerable. In Pemba, we are still recording arrivals daily. They arrive on foot, in very severe conditions in terms of physical and mental health. People arrive highly traumatised.
DW Africa: And has UNHCR had all the necessary means to help the displaced people?
ML: This operation is not fully funded. Funding is scarce. All organisations, not only the UNHCR but various other United Nations organisations on the ground, are giving what they have to assist people in Cabo Delgado province, as well as those going to other provinces.
DW Africa: There are people fleeing to Tanzania. Is the neighbouring country prepared to receive these refugees?
ML: On this side of the border, where we are, we are receiving thousands of Mozambicans, especially women and children, who are being forcibly returned to Mozambique. This is a clear violation of the principle of non-return [non-refoulement] of anyone seeking to save their life and seeking asylum in another country because of a situation of persecution in an armed conflict in their own country. This is what has been happening. We have been with personnel on border observation in the Negomano area. Since January of this year, we have had numbers from the Mozambique border authorities, who work with us and have been working 24 hours to protect these people who arrive in Negomano. Already, around 9,600 people have arrived [been returned] from Tanzania since January.
DW Africa: The UNHCR distinguishes between IDPs and refugees. Why this distinction?
ML: They are both protected by international law, they are both entitled to international protection, but the difference is precisely at the border. From the moment someone leaves their country for reasons of persecution – not necessarily because of armed conflicts, but because of their ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, among others – when they cross the border and seek asylum in another country, that person is an “asylum seeker”, and may be a “refugee”. The person is now under the protection of the country that grants asylum. The internally displaced people we have here [in Mozambique] are Mozambicans, with full rights like any Mozambican citizen. If Mozambicans are, for example, in another country, then they have to obey the national legislation of the country that is protecting them, but they are not nationals of that country.