No place called home

Conditions at Cape Town’s Soetwater refugee camp are so dire that volunteers at the camp, together with the Treatment Action Campaign, are compiling affidavits in preparation for possible legal action against the provincial government.

One volunteer described the camp as ”brutal, with inadequate nutrition, sanitation, shelter, and minimal access to healthcare”.

The Department of Health sent inspectors to Soetwater this week after all 900 refugees refused to eat their main daily meal because they believed the food was rotten.

This week refugees from Soetwater said they were expecting to meet provincial premier Ebrahim Rasool after chairperson of the parliamentary portfolio committee for home affairs, Patrick Chauke, promised the refugees that such a meeting would take place.

Refugees want to tell Rasool that they are terrified of being forced to reintegrate. The premier said that all the camps will be closed by July 23 and people are uncertain about their future.

”Since the day we arrived in South Africa we have endured the hatred of South Africans for their black brothers and sisters from across Africa. In May we lost our homes, our possessions, our businesses and our faith in our neighbourhoods. We lost hope. We don’t want to lose our lives,” the Joint Refugee Leadership Committee (JRLC) of the Western Cape, representing refugees from eight camps, said in a statement.

Spokesperson for the premier, Jeremy Michaels, said he was unaware of plans for a meeting involving Rasool. ”About 13 000 refugees have been successfully reintegrated. The Soetwater refugees told the premier to his face that they don’t want to speak to him but to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees — we’ve facilitated that,” Michaels said.

The food from Soetwater and Blue Waters is currently being tested after Blue Waters refugees complained of rotten food, people involved in the process have told the Mail & Guardian.

The Soetwater refugees get dry bread and water-thinned juice between 10am and 1pm and a hot meal — usually a split-pea and bean-stew served with rice or pasta — between 5pm and 8pm. Three people have to share one loaf of bread. Occasionally jam is served with the bread, volunteers told the M&G. No baby formula is provided.

The provincial government is giving the relief organisation Mustafadin R21 per person per day to supply food.

Soetwater, a campsite on the edge of the Atlantic, is an exposed and inhospitable place. Refugees, mainly from Somalia, the Congo and Ethiopia, have been housed here in plastic marquees but are struggling as the wet Cape winter takes its toll, residents and volunteers at the camp told the M&G.

This week a Congolese woman went into early labour in a nearby hospital and lost her premature baby.

Last weekend a Somali businessman from the camp went back to Retreat as part of the reintegration process and was shot and killed in what the refugees call a xenophobic attack.

Mohamed Nor Adow was gunned down shortly after he arrived back in Retreat, where he was about to set up his business again.

The Somali camp leaders said that one of their countrymen was also shot and killed in Phillipi when he went back to the community. A third Somali was apparently injured in Khayelitsha this week after he was hacked with a panga when he returned.

Twelve families, originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Somalia moved from Blue Waters camp in an attempt to reintegrate in their communities in Samora Machel, Lower Crossroads, Phillipi, and Gugulethu but have returned to the camp because they felt too unsafe.

A senior librarian at the theological college in Muizenberg, Stephan Kratz, who has worked as a volunteer in Soetwater since the camp opened on May 23, said in an affidavit this week: ”For the entire time of my involvement at Soetwater I have not witnessed any fresh fruit or vegetables being supplied. I have not witnessed any food for young children or babies being supplied.

”The provincial mismanagement of the food is disastrous since it has destabilised the camp and has contributed to increasing health risks — Oftentimes, the supply is sporadic and disorganised, which causes mayhem in the camp,” Kratz wrote.

Volunteer Tracy Saunders wrote: ”Over the past six weeks I have seen people get thinner, the circles under the eyes grow darker and their mental health deteriorate.

”The tents offer very little protection against the cold, and rain seeps in from underneath and along the sides. People are sleeping on very thin mattresses that are directly on the ground.

”The poor nutrition has resulted in many of the children and adults breaking out in bad rashes. The inadequate nutrition also plays a part in their precarious mental condition,” Saunders said.

”What concerns the refugees most, is their future and the future of their children. Where are they to go after July 23? What will happen to them if they return to the communities that are still distributing fliers telling people that they will be killed if they return?”

The JRLC’s Isreal Abate from Ethiopia said most of the refugees would like to be resettled in a third country. ”We have lost everything that we own, but more importantly, we’ve lost the love and friendship of the South Africans here — we don’t want to stay in South Africa. We would rather be repatriated to our war-torn countries and we want this process administered by the UNHCR as soon as possible.”

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