No end to woes for refugees
The signs of having lived for two months in a state of constant flux are evident on the face of Amsi Wilondga. A Congolese national displaced by xenophobic violence in Durban, his eyes are sunken and have gained a dullness from the stress of an uncertain future.
Forced from his home in Pinetown, he moved from a refugee site to a shelter, to sleeping on the steps of City Hall and now to a mattress in a makeshift tent in the central business district’s Albert Park.
“Our very big problem is water. We don’t have permission to get water from the municipality taps,” he says. The park’s community centre has running water, showers and toilets.
“We only got six [portable] toilets yesterday [on Tuesday].”
Wilondga is one of more than 150 foreigners who have been living at Albert Park since last Friday night. The group, including 75 children under 18 and 10 babies, were dumped at the park by Metro Police after being removed from the steps of City Hall, where they spent last Thursday night after protesting against local government’s inability to ensure a secure solution to their destitution.
The Al Indaad Trust and Durban Action Against Xenophobia (DAAX), a loose civil society collective of individuals formed in response to the xenophobic violence, have rallied around the group, scrambling to get food, tents and toilets together.
Government is blamed for their plight: “We’d like to be treated like a someone, not a something,” says Christopher Kwigomba, commenting on incidents in the past few weeks—people removed from churches which had run out of money and food and the municipality paying for a week’s accommodation in a local shelter before “requesting” the refugees to go back to their communities.
Salema Moshondi, five-and-a-half months pregnant, was allegedly beaten by security guards hired by the municipality during the City Hall protest.
City manager Michael Sutcliffe says his guards were “restraining” people last week and that the group arrived at City Hall “spoiling for a fight”. He says the city offered three options that local government would facilitate: repatriation to their home countries, reintegration into their local communities or transport to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ reception centre in Pretoria. He says the group was “belligerent” and the municipality “simply doesn’t have the resources” to provide homes for the displaced foreigners.
Lennox Mabaso, spokesperson for the provincial department of local government and housing which, with the departments of safety and security and social development, has been given the task of handling the xenophobic crisis, says provincial government is consulting the eThekwini municipality over the Albert Park group.
He says more than 1 000 displaced foreigners on lists collated from various refugees sites around the province had been successfully reintegrated or voluntarily repatriated so far and some members in the group weren’t on these lists.
“When we were reintegrating and returning people to their countries we noticed a new trend that has developed — the wrong understanding that you will be treated better, housed in a hall and given food et cetera — and some people were taking advantage of this to get resources,” he says.
Mabaso says it still has to be ascertained if these were genuine victims of xenophobia or “opportunists piggy-backing on the xenophobia issue”.
The Children’s Rights Centre’s Shirin Motala, who has been organising resources at various sites for refugees, believes government has not engaged holistically in the crisis: “Even at the premier’s [S’bu Ndebele’s] task team meeting in June government was setting these completely unrealistic targets for reintegrating people into their communities. They were talking about getting people back in a month.
“It’s not so much about placing people back in their communities, but also recognising the psychological damage that has been done. People need support to get back to their jobs because even if their fears may be unfounded, it exists for them.
“Awareness needs to be raised in communities, workshops need to be held with the police to address any prejudice—you need an absolutely integrated approach to integration,” she says. One such attempt—arguably the first in the province—started this week at the Sekusile Education Centre in Newlands East; a two-day workshop including various civil society organisations, faith-based organisations and refugees hosted by the Assemblies of God.
“We are attempting to find out what all the difficulties and challenges around reintegration are by speaking to everybody concerned and affected,” says pastor David Samuels. “This is a vital workshop to ensure proper integration and we invited the local councillors and people from the municipality, but they haven’t responded—perhaps this is not a big enough event for them.”