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UN: ‘Foreigners and South Africans can live together’

“Refugees need UNHCR, not ANC”; “We can’t go home, nor stay here”; “We need UN”. These are the words on some of the cardboard posters, made from boxes, being held in the air by refugees at the Glenvista refugee camp in Johannesburg.

From behind the fence surrounding the camp ground, refugees vie for the attention of the media, NGOs and, most importantly, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Hundreds of white UN tents have been pitched on a field located next to a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet and a petrol station in Glenvista. About 2 000 refugees now stay at this so-called “temporary safety camp”, one of more than 30 around the country, after being relocated from Jeppe and Cleveland police stations where they had taken shelter from recent xenophobic attacks.

These refugee camps should meet international standards, but the refugees from Jeppe and Cleveland — who last Friday were the last group to be relocated — are far from happy with their new homes.

The atmosphere in the camp is chaotic. Its residents are frustrated, screaming and waving cardboard posters at a central gathering point where, behind gates, volunteer organisations and NGOs have created their own work space. Others are standing at the main gate, where security guards control access to the camp.

From behind the fence, some refugees show journalists a pack of Nestlé cereal, pointing at the expiry date: November 8 2007. Ntegi Abdalh, from Kenya, says: “That’s what they give us here. Chickens have a better life.”

Bibish Betu, from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and her one-year-old child Semau are among those demonstrating at the main gate. Holding a poster saying “Do your children sleep in tents?”, she says the situation in the camp has not improved. “Food is very bad; the last days we only got bread and soup.”

According to Betu, the churches and mosques that delivered food to the Jeppe police station are no longer doing so because the new camp is too far away.

She admits that sleeping in one of the UN tents with one’s family is better than sleeping outside at the police station, but says “the tents are cold, very, very cold. And there are not enough mattresses and blankets.”

Refugee Mozes Kamamga, also from the DRC, complains about the camp’s toilets and two showers. “We have these two showers now, but there is no hot water in the camp.” Pointing at a group of people gathering wood from the bushes not far away, he says: “We are now making our own fire to warm water. But the security doesn’t allow us to make fires; they say it’s dangerous.”

Apart from the list of complaints about circumstances in the camp, there is one demand that almost all the refugees voice over and over again: they want the UN to take care of them and move them to another country.

Says Ntegi Abdalh from Kenya: “The government wants us to go back to our community, but we don’t feel safe with our African brothers. If they [the government] really want to help us, they should leave us to the UN. The UN must bring us to another country, where we can live in peace.”

He receives loud vocal support from other refugees. People start screaming and waving their posters again. A woman shouts: “Give us a place to live in Mozambique, Zambia or Botswana. You can even send us to the bush there, if we can only live in peace!”

With all their hopes focused on the UN, there are high expectations of a visit of three UN representatives to the camp later in the day. When the officials arrive, a previously chosen group of refugees tell their stories — including a woman who, on her knees, desperately asks the UN for help.

But the message of Karl Steinacker, head of the UNHCR’s field information and coordination support section, is clear. Addressing the refugees, he says: “We understand that this is not a nice place. Camps are always the worst solution. But you are here for your safety, until the situation is safer outside.”

“But,” he adds, “do not believe that the UN is coming here with a plane to take you to another country. As far as I know, there is no country that offered to take you. People have to go back to their communities and, if necessary, the UN — together with the government — will help you lead a normal life. I am sure foreigners and South Africans can live together.”

Having already lost their trust in the government and its plan to reintegrate them into their communities, and the UN not the solution that many had hoped for, Steinacker’s words disappoint those gathered around him. They turn away and join the crowd of protesting refugees once more.

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Imke Van Hoorn
Guest Author

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