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‘We are living like dogs’

Jimmy Malish huddles under a blanket, looks at the darkening sky and prays that it doesn’t rain again on him and the hundreds of other African migrants camped in the courtyard of a Johannesburg police station.

”We are living like dogs,” the 26-year-old Sudanese refugee said on Tuesday at the Jeppe police station, more than a week after a mob, armed with knives and sticks, drove him and his foreign-born neighbours from their homes in a nearby township.

”Please tell somebody to help us.”

His plea is echoed by Zimbabweans, Mozambicans and others from around the continent targeted in a wave of attacks in South Africa that have killed dozens of foreign workers and displaced tens of thousands.

Some estimates put the number of refugees at 80 000 to 100 000.

Although President Thabo Mbeki and other senior officials have condemned the violence, on the ground there are few signs the government has stepped in with significant aid for victims.

The lion’s share of blankets, tents, clothes and food distributed in refugee shelters and camps have come from relief agencies, religious groups and individual citizens.

”This is a refugee crisis and it is unattended,” said Muriel Cornelius of Médécins Sans Frontières. The French humanitarian group is providing healthcare to displaced migrants throughout the country.

While praising the efforts of non-governmental agencies and individuals, she said the lack of an orchestrated government response threatened to worsen the plight of those displaced, some of whom sleep outside in near freezing temperatures.


Doctors and nurses report an array of respiratory infections, diarrhoea and other opportunistic diseases in overcrowded shelters and camps, posing a risk of wider outbreaks.

The Red Cross also has complained about the lack of national coordination by government.

The crisis has prompted thousands to return home.

At least 50 000 Mozambicans and Zimbabweans have left South Africa since the attacks, which have now subsided, began on May 11. Smaller numbers have gone back to Zambia and Malawi.

Zimbabweans are the largest immigrant group in South Africa, accounting for an estimated 60% of the five million migrants here. South Africa’s population is about 50-million.

The bloodshed and subsequent exodus is embarassing to a country that has prided itself on welcoming immigrants and asylum seekers, and officials are taking steps to reintegrate migrants back into the community.

While some have accepted the offer, others say they are too scared to do so.

”We will be killed by our neighbours,” Ndubula Joelle, a pregnant mother of two from the Democratic Republic of Congo, said at the Jeppe police station. ”They will cut my baby out. They told me.”

No health problems in Cape Town

Meanwhile, officials in Cape Town said there were no major health problems at any of the refugee sites dotted around the city.

They were responding to warnings by civil society groups that the sites were a health risk, and a claim that an outbreak of diarrhoea at a shelter in Nyanga had left 58 people severely ill.

”At this moment in time we are not aware of any huge threat from a health point of view,” the city’s acting executive director of health, Dr Ivan Bromfield, told a media briefing.

He said the 400 people at the Nyanga shelter had adequate sanitation, and water supply and refuse removal were not a problem.

The site was being visited daily by a nurse and an environmental health practitioner.

Though there were isolated cases of diarrhoea, these were being dealt with as they occurred.

Bromfield said when any community was displaced, there was always a potential for health problems.

The city was monitoring the situation very carefully to pick up problems early.

Though the city did not want to create a duplicate health infrastructure for the refugees, medical outposts were being set up at the four largest of the six safe zones established for the refugees.

City spokesperson Pieter Cronje said the total number of displaced people ”that we can account for” at city sites, including the safe zones, was 18 618.

Another official, the city’s director for local government and interface Brent Gerber, said teams from the city were helping the Department of Home Affairs to register refugees in order to find out whether they wanted to return to their countries of origin, or be reintegrated into the local communities they had fled.

This was not easy: some refugees in the safe areas wanted the registration done by the United Nations, not by South Africans.

Groups of refugees were ”getting physical” with others to prevent them registering.

The city was engaging with refugees leaders on these issues.

Gerber said that at one of the safe areas, the Youngsfield air force base, officials had nevertheless by 4pm on Monday registered 608 of the 1 200 people there.

Ninety percent of those registered had indicated they wanted to go back to their home countries, he said.

Repatriation would be the responsibility of the Department of Home Affairs.

Spokesperson for the city’s disaster management division, Wilfred Solomons-Johannes, said people at the safe havens were getting food, clothes, blankets and access to healthcare.

The city was stepping up its efforts to ensure people still at risk could be accommodated there.

It was sending mediators to those who had sought shelter at community halls to explain the benefits of going to the safe havens.

The city’s main aim however was to reintegrate people into the communities they came from. He estimated it would take about a month to restore ”normality”.

”We are making a concerted effort to restore peace,” he said.

Solomons-Johannes said the city was contemplating establishing a seventh safe site, and there might even be more.

He said it appeared that the city had become a ”destination of choice” for foreign nationals fleeing violence in other provinces.

He had no idea of the numbers involved. This would unfold through the registration process, he said. – Sapa, Reuters

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Paul Simao
Guest Author

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