Why migrants don't want to leave the camps

The conflict that killed her father pushed Elvira Munezero, a 39-year-old nurse-midwife, to flee Burundi in 2004. She and her husband, Jean Njoragoze, sought refuge in South Africa where she has been working to provide medical care to patients at St Mary’s hospital in Pinetown in KwaZulu-Natal. With a president refusing to step down, Burundi is on a knife-edge again and many of its citizens have left the country in search of safety. But in South Africa, xenophobic violence has sent Burundians fleeing for their lives.

Elvira and her husband and five children are among approximately 887 people in the last remaining camp for displaced people in Chatsworth outside Durban. Following the attacks last month, nearly 8 000 displaced people sought shelter in three camps around Durban. Within a fortnight there were mass repatriations of Zimbabweans, Mozambicans and Malawians – 2 000 alone left on 39 buses – and later the camps were consolidated into a single camp.

The residents of this camp now consist primarily of Congolese and Burundian refugees and asylum-seekers who cannot safely go back to their home countries. A smaller number of people – approximately 45 from Mozambique, Kenya, Rwanda Tanzania and Zimbabwe – chose not to be repatriated but do not yet feel safe to leave the camp. An additional 100 people live in a shelter in the town, and many others, including Somalis and Ethiopians, remain displaced throughout the city.

Merely looking at the numbers – the official death toll of seven – does not reflect the greater impact of xenophobia in KwaZulu-Natal and elsewhere in South Africa. Hundreds of shops and businesses were looted and destroyed, there were countless non-fatal injuries, migrants embarked on a mass exodus from Durban, and South Africa has been plunged into a deep crisis of faith and trust. It appears that South Africa is eager to swiftly move on from history repeating itself. A flurry of #StopXenophobia hashtags and talk of reintegration are juxtaposed against recent security operations that aim to sweep away the inconvenient reality of migration and the vulnerability of people forced to live on the margins of society, all in the name of crime prevention.

Where were the police?

But Elvira and fellow residents of Chatsworth ask: “Where were the police when the mobs were attacking us? How can we go back to a community where our own neighbours turned against us? We have seen this violence more than once, how can we trust that it won’t return?”

Last week psychologists from Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) assessed people in the Chatsworth camp and found that many have symptoms of post-traumatic stress consistent with those of people living in camps in South Sudan and Central African Republic, where people are fleeing active conflicts. Some of those displaced in Durban face multiple and compounded trauma, with this most recent displacement added to others experienced before. The trauma related to repeated insults in their everyday life in South Africa was also striking.

Their fear is real. Government characterises Mozambican Emmanuel Josias Sithole’s killing as purely criminal. Malawian Francois Kandulu’s body was found decapitated at a railway line next to a KwaZulu-Natal displacement camp, classified as an accident or a suicide.

But those people affected by xenophobic violence are not all convinced – more so after Congolese and Ethiopian nationals were killed recently in KwaZulu-Natal. Congolese hairdresser Lumona Ziko was killed outside his home in Pietermaritzburg only four days after he returned from a temporary shelter. Ethiopian shopkeeper Etebo Kebed was gunned down inside his shop after receiving threats.

The killings are high water marks, but displaced people narrate a flood of testimonies of the repeated daily discrimination they face in taxis, on street corners, in workplaces and schools, and in accessing public services, from hospitals to police stations.

Since mid-April, MSF has worked with eThekwini authorities to provide medical care, psychosocial care and water and sanitation support for people displaced by xenophobic violence in Durban. MSF provided similar support following the xenophobic violence in 2008.

Camps cannot be a long-term, or even medium-term, solution for people displaced by xenophobic violence. They are an emergency stopgap measure to ensure security, shelter and survival. They must meet international standards, and every effort must be made to ensure that they need not last beyond the emergency phase.

Thus far, however, there have been only very limited government-led reintegration efforts – mostly reaching out to councillors and other local government leaders without involving people who are displaced. Only a few dozen individuals have been transported from camps accompanied by armed police officers. Where such mechanisms must be deployed, it is a sign that communities may not yet be ready to accept returning foreign nationals.

While the government’s re-integration plan does include extensive community dialogues, there is room for greater inclusiveness. Experiences from 2008 show that from-the-ground-up reintegration efforts bear lasting fruit. In Khayelitsha, in the Western Cape, communities organised themselves to stem the tide of violence in 2008 and welcome the displaced back home. Now, in 2015, there have been proactive efforts to ensure that violence does not return and that foreign nationals feel protected.

Conflicting message

The South African government should allow its words of condemnation to be matched by its action, not contradicted. Breaking from its initial sluggish response to the xenophobic violence, governmental actors then spoke forcefully in opposition to the violence. Yet more recently the government launched a recent crackdown netting undocumented foreigners through Operation Fiela-Reclaim, which sends a conflicting message that is deeply at odds with its role of urging reconciliation, dialogue and reintegration to the public.

Minister Jeff Radebe, who heads inter-ministerial committee on migration, says that Operation Fiela-Reclaim is “an operation to rid our country of illegal weapons, drug dens, prostitution rings and other illegal activities” – but the statistics tell a different story.

The number of arrests from far outstrip the total of the reported arrests (307) made in April in connection with xenophobic violence. Deploying the military, police and home affairs officials with increased strength and resources by last week led to the arrest of 745 undocumented foreigners – more than doubling the population of the Lindela repatriation centre as they await eventual deportation. While government says these arrests aim to crack down on crime and restore order, fewer than 50 people among the total of 889 were arrested for crimes such as assault, murder, illegal weapons possession, or drug-related crimes.

Given that virtually all of those people arrested have been cited for being in South Africa without documents and nothing more, these sweeping operations are an uncommonly militarised response to contravening immigration law. It is hard not to believe that these actions signify a frantic knee-jerk security clampdown.

Such actions send a message that foreigners are a criminal scourge, rather than people fleeing abuses or seeking a better life. This wrongly reinforces an “us versus them” mentality in the minds of ordinary South Africans. In fact, the aggressive arrest, detention and deportations of undocumented foreigners suggest potential to exacerbate xenophobia further.

Xenophobia must not be tolerated – whether it is severe violence or the daily prejudice and occasional killing and targeting of foreign shopkeepers that has become all too familiar in South Africa.

The strong public and political cries for tolerance must not be limited to this moment and we should recognise that mass exodus of foreigners is evidence of our society failing collectively. We need to work harder to root out xenophobia – at the very least we all owe it to the individuals and communities affected in recent weeks – but also foreign nationals who undoubtedly will continue to come to South Africa as migrants, refugees or asylum seekers because their of desperate circumstances.

  • Emi MacLean and Sharon Ekambaram work for Médecins Sans Frontières in KwaZulu-Natal


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