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Refugee Rights News
Volume 4, Issue 6
October 2008

Civil Society Demands Protection of Targeted Foreigners in South Africa

Five months after the outbreak of violence against foreigners in South Africa, civil society organisations are still working to ensure that there is an appropriate governmental response. Over the last months, civil society from across Africa has become engaged with an initiative by the Citizenship Rights in Africa Initiative to conduct an African civil society assessment. At the same time, civil society within South Africa has mobilized to ensure that the displaced and others continue to receive the support that they need, whether in camps, reintegrating into the community or returning to their countries. More recently, 14 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have spoken out about the shortcomings of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in South Africa in protecting those displaced from the May 2008 attacks on foreign nationals and have requested a formal inquiry.

The Citizenship Rights in Africa Initiative Visits South Africa

From 4-14 August, the Citizenship Rights in Africa Initiative (CRAI) visited South Africa on a fact-finding mission to document the May attacks upon foreign nationals that resulted in the deaths of at least 62 people and the displacement of approximately 20,000. CRAI, launched in February 2007 by the International Refugee Rights Initiative, the Open Society Justice Initiative and the Pan African Movement, is dedicated to raising awareness about the denial of citizenship rights in Africa and advocating with governments to ensure more equitable protection.

Outside of Johannesburg, the mission visited Rand Airport camp, which the Gauteng provincial government has since announced it would close. The camp is home to roughly 1,500 foreign nationals who were displaced in the violence. Mission members were able to speak with a number of the residents. In Cape Town, they met with members of the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), an HIV/AIDS activist group that had expanded the scope of its duties to include tending to the needs of the displaced victims and gathering evidence for potential court action against the provincial government. CRAI representatives followed some of those who had chosen to return to their countries in the wake of the violence, speaking with Mozambicans who had recently returned from South Africa in Mozambique.

CRAI representatives found that many foreign nationals who were not directly attacked have fled to camps in apprehension of further violence. Through interviews with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, CRAI learned that approximately 300 individuals have asked for resettlement to Canada and Australia. Generally, the foreign nationals living in camps as well as those who had returned to their country of origin have expressed a need for three things, “relocation, compensation and a reintegration plan,” according to Adam Hussein, Co-ordinator of the Citizenship & Statelessness Project of the Open Society Institute for East Africa (OSIEA) and participant in the CRAI mission.

One young Mozambican man told the team how he had lived in South Africa for ten years, eventually bringing three of his brothers to live with him. He took care of his brothers, wed, rented land, built a house and bought a car. During the crisis, he found that his neighbours had torched all of his possessions. He saved his car but lost all his other belongings. One young woman, a South African national who had married a Mozambican, was told by her South African family members that she would be safer staying away from her family’s community due to her husband’s origin. This fear was not unfounded as, according to South Africa’s newspaper Mail & Guardian, approximately one third of the victims killed during the attacks were South Africans. The immigration status of the displaced spans a wide range, from recognised asylum-seekers and refugees to undocumented migrants, from naturalised to natural-born citizens.

The CRAI mission uncovered numerous and intertwined causes of the violence. Some of those interviewed by the mission proffered reasons, including the negative media portrayal of foreign nationals; a police force unsympathetic to immigrants; emotional and unsubstantiated stereotypes of high rates of unemployment among, and draining of social benefits by, foreign nationals; a lack of community leaders or organising in immigrant populations; and the history of apartheid and oppression in South Africa which has led to high rates of unemployment in the impoverished areas where the attacks began. While acknowledging that individual criminal intent was a key aspect of the attacks, the CRAI mission concluded that the attacks could have been avoided, or at least their impact mitigated, had the South African government responded more strongly to the warning signs of previous violent attacks on foreign nationals or condemned the attacks sooner.

In the immediate aftermath of the attack, CRAI called on the South African government to protect the rights and property of the migrants. The report of the CRAI mission will soon be made public and a campaign of follow up advocacy will be undertaken in order to comprehensively address the situation of displaced migrants. It is hoped that the initiative will mobilise civil society in South Africa and beyond, to advocate for the rights of migrants and others excluded from their rights on the basis that they do not fit within the national conception of identity.

Closing Down the Camps

Several South African civil society actors have pushed to hold the government to its obligations through domestic advocacy, for example, by challenging plans to close camps and monitoring registration requirements. In Gauteng province, where the attacks first started in Alexandra, Johannesburg on 12 May, the provincial government has shut down victims’ camps in Ekurhuleni, Midrand, Corlett Gardens, Spring and Glenanda. The government has announced that it will shut down the two remaining camps at Rand Airport and Boksburg. The Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in South Africa (Cormsa) had unsuccessfully applied to the Pretoria High Court to prevent the closures and subsequently brought an urgent application in the Constitutional Court on behalf of the displaced to keep the shelters open until a reintegration plan was produced. The court issued an interim ruling that the government and lawyers for the displaced must attempt to negotiate with the goal of closing the camps by 30 September. The court granted the government’s request to consolidate the camps and to discuss the removal of people residing in South Africa without documentation. According to the order, no one could be forcibly removed from the camps except to consolidate the camps. On 16 September, The Constitutional Court postponed the hearing once again, stating that it would hear further arguments on 20 November.

In the Western Cape, the debate over the closure of the camps has taken place in an atmosphere of ongoing insecurity. Since the so-called “end” of the attacks, five foreign nationals have been killed and seven injured as the Western Cape provincial government began reintegrating victims of xenophobic attacks. In addition, some have become victims of extortion by neighbours demanding protection money. Currently, approximately 6,000 foreign nationals are living in Cape Town’s refugee camps, which the provincial government had hoped to close by 3 September. TAC founder Zackie Achmat announced in early August that legal steps would be taken against the province and the city due to the deterioration of living conditions within the camps. The provincial government has maintained that the danger is over and that reintegration must begin. AIDS Law Project (ALP) and several other NGOs met with Cape Town authorities, leading the city to postpone the closing of Harmony Park camp and Blue Waters camp until remaining residents are either reintegrated or repatriated. Relocation of individuals from shelters at Chrysalis Manor Community Hall, Solomon Mahlangu and Soetwater to Blue Waters camp continues.

Another key debate has revolved around efforts to document the migrants forced into centres for the displaced. Residents at Glenanda camp risked deportation if they did not register for temporary ID cards that would allow them to stay another six months in South Africa. Many of the refugees nonetheless refused to register for the ID cards, fearing that doing so would invalidate their existing refugee status documents. A Gauteng government spokesperson insisted that refugees and asylum seekers at Glenanda camp would need to register or risk losing their status. However, South African law does not allow the revocation of refugee status except in cases in which the person in question has committed a crime. Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR) has spoken out about the registration process, stating that the permits are being misused as a tool by the provincial government to control people they suspect are undocumented and to prevent the displaced from accessing humanitarian aid.

In addition to TAC, Cormsa, ALP, and LHR, other organisations are responding to the needs of the displaced. Many have expressed their support of the court action in Gauteng, including a coalition of NGOs called the Reintegration Working Group. The group includes representatives of, among others, the Anglican Diocese of Johannesburg, the Somali Community Board, the Refugee Ministries Centre, the Coalition against Xenophobia, His People Church, the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, Mthwakazi Arts and Culture, and the Salvation Army. Oxfam has said that it supports the role of the government in finding a durable solution for foreign nationals, including the eventual closure of the camps, but it believes that conditions and processes required for a safe, accountable, and voluntary reintegration of the 5,000 people sheltered in camps in Gauteng have not been met.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees and civil society members in South Africa have clashed over the response to the May xenophobic attacks. 14 South African non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have called for a commission of inquiry into the failures of UNHCR in South Africa. These organisations, including Black Sash, the Treatment Action Campaign, the country’s largest trade union federation, Cosatu, and the South African Council of Churches, stated that some UNHCR staff treated people in the displacement camps with “enormous contempt and disrespect”. UNHCR’s response criticised the “negative role played by some civil society groups, which have failed to make any constructive contribution to the search for solutions to this problem, but have rather systematically criticised those who are genuinely trying to tackle the problem at hand”. UNHCR maintained that it played its role in conformity with its mandate and had worked closely with the South African government in addressing the problems of the displaced following the attacks.