Life of Refugees, Migrants Entails “risking everything”: Catholic Priest in Zimbabwe

Credit: IMBISA

A Catholic Priest in Zimbabwe coordinating an office of the Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops’ Conference (ZCBC) has highlighted the plight of refugees and migrants, saying that their lives entail “risking everything” in search of a better life.

In a February 4 report, the Coordinator of the Catholic Parliamentary Liaison Office (CPLO) of ZCBC narrates what he witnessed at Tongogara Refugee Camp in Zimbabwe during the World Refugee Day last year.

“It seems, risking everything is part of the definition of what it means to be a refugee or a migrant, because many take risks outside the camp,” Fr. Phillip Kembo says, recalling his visit that extended to this year. 

The Catholic Priest adds, “The celebration of the 107th World Day of Migrants and Refugees, was no longer a thing of the sermon, but rather an experience of the life of each other, sharing as friends, the joys and fears of one another.”

Fr. Kembo says he interacted with the refugees as they engaged in different activities including social ones such as watching movies and football matches with loud cheers, adding that he was moved by the fact that he was the only one in a facemask.


“All along, I was just saying to myself, could this be the way the day of the refugees and migrants ought to have been celebrated this year. Probably this was part of the new normal called for during the pandemic, that as a Priest, it is I, called to come to these people to share their environment rather than regret over the unshared sermons,” Fr. Kembo says in the February 4 report.

He further says that the spirit of “towards an ever wider we,” which was the 107th World Refugee Day theme, was experienced as together with others, joined the refugees in watching movies among other social activities.

Explaining the survival techniques in the refugee camp, which he says are characterized by some refugees travelling to Harare to purchase some goods for their families, the Catholic Priest says that some were arrested by authorities due to lack of gate passes and had to celebrate the world refugee day behind bars.

The coordinator of the CPLO, which works in collaboration with the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace (CCJP), receiving support from Misereor, further says that they had to intervene to ensure that those arrested were released.

He says in reference to those arrested by authorities, “In advocating for their freedom, besides the law, we cited the health issues of some who were detained while pointing out the risk that children detained with their parents could contract COVID-19 while in custody.”

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The Zimbabwean Priest further says that the refugees travel over 180 km in search of these goods for their families, a journey he says takes them as far as Botswana or South Africa.

He explains that since some of them fail to get gate passes, they are compelled to engage in vices like corruption where those who have the means bribe police in order to reach their destinations.

Fr. Kembo adds, “On a serious note, we also stated that these people are celebrating the World Day of Refugees and Migrants and hence, they needed mercy and pardon. These were released after two days and transport was arranged from Tongogara Camp and they were ferried back to the camp.”

He says that refugees suffer in the hands of authorities especially when there is no one to advocate for them and that the issue of documentation has contributed to such suffering.

“In most situations, refugees and migrants get into such situations and lack someone to advocate on their behalf, and these unfortunate souls just have to be deported or lament in our prison cells,” he says.


The Catholic Priest says that locals, in the event of arrest, are always bailed out by their relatives while refugees who find themselves in a similar situation suffer because it’s likely no one will be there to bail them out.

He calls upon nations to refrain from treating refugees and migrants as undignified people saying, “The call towards ‘an ever wider we’ invites all nations hosting displaced people and communities, to feel for those escaping the effects of wars, the pandemic, unemployment and other catastrophes.”

Fr. Kembo adds, “Due to lack of documentation by some of the displaced people and the migrants, their respective embassies are either ignorant of the presence of their own people in the host country, and some remain in prisons longer than they should.”

The CPLO official cautions against underestimating the problems that refugees experience, challenging humanity into embracing “an ever wider we” spirit because everyone is a potential refugee.

“It is however to be noted that the risks and pains of the migrants cannot be underestimated, ranging from sexual abuses, false imprisonment, crossing crocodile infested rivers, robbed, deportation and charged,” Fr. Kembo says.

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He further says, “The Zimbabwe-South Africa yearly border challenges and permit crisis is, but just the tip of an ice-berg on what migrants everywhere might be going through.”

He notes that last year's 107th World Day of Migrants and Refugees was one of the most awaited occasions but that unfortunately it was impeded by the COVID-19 pandemic and the misconceptions that came with the vaccine thereby making the celebration ineffective.

“The pandemic affected the livelihood of the displaced people, and brought about new ways of supplementing their family income,” the Catholic Priest says.

He adds, “The host nation, in protecting the communities and the citizens, probably had an oversight on how the hosted communities have extended to other parts of the country and even beyond.”

The host countries should understand the reason behind people fleeing from their countries or homes so as to be able to see life from the perspective of the displaced people, Fr. Kembo advises.

“The life of the refugees and migrants depends so much on the host and those who support them, and failure to do so only leads to haunt the host community,” Fr. Kembo explains, and adds, “Today I depend on you, tomorrow you or your offspring, may depend on me, and this is the journey towards an ever wider we.”