Thursday, December 27, 2007

''Foreign Traders Are Taking Our Jobs''


By Pilirani Semu-Banda

LILONGWE, Dec 19 (IPS) - Foreigners working illegally as small-scale traders are increasingly being regarded as a threat to their local counterparts in Malawi. The outsiders are setting up businesses which, local Malawians believe, are displacing them.

Nad├Ęge Shabani, a refugee from Burundi, is a successful businesswoman plying her trade in Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe. She owns a thriving beauty salon, restaurant and a clothes shop.

She is an example of the foreigners who are being accused of ‘‘taking away’’ business opportunities from locals. Malawians believe that the foreigners possess business strategies and skills which most native traders lack.

‘‘I came to Malawi in 2004 to escape war in my home country. I used the money I came with to set up my businesses here,’’ says Shabani. She started her business with 6,000 dollars. Her ventures are now carting in a profit of about 2,500 dollars per month.

Shabani’s earnings seem like a fortune in a country where up to 45 percent of the population is classified poor, according to the 2007 Malawi Millennium Development Goal report.

When it comes to Malawian businesswomen, only five percent of them are aware of available trade opportunities, according to a 2007 study conducted on behalf of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) by the Federation of National Associations of Business Women in COMESA.

In contrast, Shabani is knowledgeable about different marketing methods and able to identify the most lucrative trade opportunities. ‘‘I am trying to make a living here so I have to be as shrewd as possible. I just have to work hard and employ every strategy which can see me live a better life,’’ she says.

But native Malawians are unhappy with people like Shabani. Grace Kalemera, who owns a beauty salon close to Shabani’s, complains that the Burundian ‘‘stole business from her’’ by establishing her shop so close to Kalemera’s.

‘‘Customers are more interested in sampling foreign services. They go to Shabani’s beauty salon because most of her employees are also foreigners,’’ claims Kalemera.

The Malawian businesswoman blames lack of vigilance by the authorities in effecting laws. ‘‘A lot of foreigners are left to take part in informal trade at the expense of indigenous business people,’’ laments Kalemera.

Trading spots that are close to refugee camps in Karonga in northern Malawi, Dowa (about 45 km north of the capital Lilongwe) and the capital itself are the most popular outlets among refugees.

Last month, police in the north of Malawi intercepted 71 illegal immigrants from Ethiopia on their way to the country’s capital.

But refugees are not the only group of foreigners perceived to be encroaching on small-scale businesses in Malawi. Nationals from China, Tanzania, Pakistan, India and Nigeria have also been accused of trading illegally in the country’s main cities of Blantyre, Lilongwe and Mzuzu.

In October this year, the Malawian government launched an operation to address the problem of Chinese and Nigerian traders accused of operating unlawfully.

Trade and Commerce Minister Ken Lipenga was quoted in the media as saying the operation was ‘‘to flush out illegal foreigners’’ and that the influx of Chinese and Nigerian traders was causing a big problem.

According to the government, most of these traders are contravening business licensing procedures for investing in a business by foreigners. A minimum of 50,000 dollars is required before the issuance of a trade permit to a foreigner.

A number of shops owned by Chinese nationals have since been closed down in Lilongwe. ‘‘It is imperative that foreign traders follow the country's investment procedures,’’ Lipenga said.

Between November 26 and December 1, 2007, the immigration department arrested 90 illegal immigrants in a routine exercise which happens every quarter of the year.

The exercise took place in the capital and at the tourist destinations of Zomba and Mangochi in the southern region, according to the immigration department. Traders from Rwanda, Tanzania, Burundi, China and India were arrested in the operation.

The department says all the Rwandans and Burundians have since been returned to a refugee camp in Dowa as they were found doing business without permits. The remaining foreigners were sent to court to formally be charged with the offence of contravening permit conditions.

According to the immigration department, being found doing business without a legal permit is met with one of two legal responses: the foreigners could have their permits cancelled or they could be deported.

There are over 8,000 refugees in Malawi, according to deputy minister of home affairs, Vuwa Kaunda. He says most of them are in the 18 to 25 age group.

‘‘Our rough statistics show that Malawi has 2,400 refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo, 3,600 from Rwanda, 1,840 from Burundi and about 1,000 Somalis,’’ says Kaunda.

The government, together with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), has just concluded a verification and registration exercise of all refugees and asylum seekers residing in the country.

The purpose of the exercise was to collect and verify information about refugees and their families in the country to ensure that they are known persons to both the government and UNHCR.

All adults are registered and will be issued with identity documents confirming their status as refugees, according to Malawi’s ministry of home affairs.

These identity documents will, among other things, protect refugees and asylum seekers from being confused with undocumented or illegal immigrants,’’ states a press release issued by the government. (END/2007)

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