Refugees in Refugee Camps Policy: Implications For The Malawian SMEs

Recently, business discussions among citizens has been the announcement by the government directing all refugees to relocate to their designated place, which are refugee camps. The decision was welcomed by some and as expected others are not happy with the direction. The refugees themselves have been quite vocal on their displeasure and have since sought court reliefs. This column does not want to enter into a legal analysis, nor try to predict the courts outcome. Let us leave that task in the hands of the legal minds and the justice system. This column attempts to contextualize implications of such decisions for the Malawian SMEs who the host was mandated to serve.

Why the government decided on this policy direction?

The ministerial statement from the Ministry of Home Affairs cited security concerns as the main reason behind this direction. That point was put across eloquently and clearly by the ministerial statement.
However, any sober Malawian will admit that the presence of refugees has been on agenda of most Malawians. A visit to most Malawian Trading Centres will testify to the fact that refugees have penetrated most businesses ranging from groceries, eatery centres, barbershops and saloons, crop produce business, botlestore to mention a few. From this background it is clear that most Malawians started becoming uncomfortable with this intrusion. Others felt the refugees are taking up business opportunities that would have been left to ordinary Malawians. That prompted discussions mostly on social media platforms accusing the government of not doing enough in safeguarding certain types of business exclusively for Malawians.

Are there current policies protecting Malawians from foreign Intrusion?

Malawi is a liberalized economy meaning that it allows for foreign investments. However there are specific laws that such investors must meet for them to do business in Malawi. Those that comply with laws relating to being a foreigner cannot in any way be affected by the current direction. Furthermore, immigration laws in the country specify the nature of residence status of any foreigner through the permits that are issued. Foreign business persons are issued business permits. In issuing business permits, the Immigration department by law is compelled to look at the investment scope of such a foreigner. Through this scrutiny the government has been able to protect citizens from intrusion of foreigners. The idea is to stop foreigners for example to operate a hawker in Goliyo. The fact that there has been uproar from most refugees on this policy direction clearly tells that most of them do not have business permits. Operating without a business permit is illegal in Malawi and to my knowledge in any country worldwide.

Implications for Malawian SMEs.

It is clear that for any business to succeed and remain sustainable, whether it is foreign or a domesticated business, legal compliance is very key. Operating a business that is in conflict with laws of the host country subjects the business to the mercies of authorities as such can be closed at any time. For Malawian SMEs the government has created SMEDI to handhold them towards total legal compliance. Secondly, others have argued that once the policy is in full effect, the business space left by the refugees will present a huge opportunity for Malawian SMEs. My personal opinion is that unless Malawian SMEs start doing business with a similar business mindset that the refugees had, then yes, that vacated space is a big opportunity to Malawian SMEs. We all can testify that these refugees have taught us the virtue of hardworking in business, timeliness, ability to respond to customer tastes and needs, and their ability to cut costs. The government actions whether by design or chance mostly opens up opportunities. Disappointingly such opportunities have gone to waste due to our failure to change our mindset needed to fully exploit such opportunities. Similarly this directive, whether intended or not, does present opportunities to us as Malawians. It is up to us to change our mindset and fully exploit the opportunities that will be created should the refugees relocate to the camps.

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