/ 2 October 2008

‘Like a concentration camp’

Despite being intimidated by shadowy figures, a refugee camp coordinator speaks out about shocking conditions.

The head of the Blue Waters refugee camp outside Muizenberg, Western Cape, accused the government this week of deliberately starving out camp inmates — as the home affairs department prepares to deport most of them.

After speaking to the Mail & Guardian, camp coordinator Marti Weddepohl was also repeatedly harassed by shadowy individuals, who warned her that she and her family would suffer if she continued to speak to the media.

In an interview last week Weddepohl accused government and the city of Cape Town of expecting her to run ”a concentration camp”, adding that home affairs was using ”sinister methods” to force refugees out of the camps.

”The Blue Waters camp was specifically designed to provide the minimum of facilities to these people. I find [the methods] very cynical given the fact that it’s unsafe for these people to reintegrate into the townships.

”The government is planning to deport most of the refugees still in the camps and their rapid re-assessment programme is merely window-dressing. A government official told me the plan is to deport up to 98% of the refugees,” she said.

”They’re expecting me to make things as unpleasant as possible — if not impossible — for the refugees to stay here and I can’t do it any more.”

Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR) also issued a statement last week expressing deep concern about reports that ”coercion and intimidation have been employed in the camps to force residents to leave the sites”.

”These methods include the removal of identity cards from residents, removing their property, including clothes, arresting residents for ‘trespassing’ and then withdrawing the charges after a weekend in detention.”

LHR said the ”Red Ants”, hired by the council, were used to remove the tents from the residents of the Akasia (Pretoria) camps, leaving refugees without shelter.

Weddepohl said conditions in the Blue Waters camp were ”shocking” and that two female inmates had miscarried last week. One, a Somali, miscarried in the camp after being refused access to the Mitchell’s Plain hospital on Tuesday.

The M&G visited the camp last Tuesday and spoke to three people with urinary infections. Weddepohl said this was because the toilets are ”hardly ever properly cleaned and disaster management officials refuse to provide materials for the refugees to do the cleaning”.

”From the start service delivery has been terrible. If it weren’t for the churches and mosques, nobody would have received food the first couple of days,” she said.

”For four months now not a single drop of milk and no fresh fruit and vegetables have been delivered. Only in the third month did they deliver baby food.

”I initially thought this was incompetence, but I now believe there’s a deliberate intention to make life as difficult as possible so that people will leave.”

Weddepohl said the refugees were malnourished. ”Every day I see people with sores around their mouths and increasingly people have to be medically treated.

”The government has been supplying dry bread and a small bottle of juice once a day. When I complained about the nutritional value of this — especially for the kids — I was told by Adiel Mnyembane, assistant director in the Department of Social Development, that this is what people in the townships eat and the refugees must eat the same.”

About 2 200 foreign nationals are still housed in three camps in the Western Cape. Nationals of various African countries, they have refused to move back into the townships because they fear for their lives. Some reintegrated, but returned after they were threatened.

Weddepohl, employed by the Cape Town council on a monthly contract, is contractually prevented from speaking to the media. ”But I can’t keep quiet any longer because it’s simply not right what is happening to these refugees and asylum-seekers.”

She said home affairs officials were using the camps to gather information about refugees to deport them. ”I’ve been told that deportations will start today [last Wednesday].

”I’ve been strong-armed by the police crowd control unit to identify refugees who were arrested and put in Pollsmoor prison without being charged. They were intimidated and accused of being members of al-Qaeda by immigration officials. These are false arrests and I’ve been made party to them,” she said.

”The home affairs officials who came into the camp on Monday called refugees kweri-kweri in front of me. They refused to tell me their names and laughed. I can’t be party to people being treated like this.”

Weddepohl said that at a meeting with United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) representative Arvind Gupta and a representative of Unicef this week, she declared that she was ”expected to run a concentration camp”.

”I told them that I will no longer mislead the refugees about the fact that I know home affairs is planning to deport most of them. The plan is to arrest people by the end of this week and my conscience tells me I must tell them what I know.”

She said she asked the two UN representatives about the plan for the refugees and what she should do. ”I asked Gupta: What must I do with them? Force them out of the camp — and then where do they go? They said that they didn’t know either.”

The UNHCR announced earlier this week that it will make R750 available to each family leaving the camps and that those opting to accept financial assistance will receive it only if they move out.

Weddepohl responded to a call made by her church in Scarborough four months ago in response to the xenophobic violence which swept the Cape Peninsula and displaced thousands.

She initially worked at the Soetwater camp near Cape Point, but was later transferred to the ”consolidated” camp at Blue Waters.

National government has announced that all camps will close by the end of September.

Western Cape Premier Lynne Brown expressed concern about the alleged harassment of Weddepohl, saying that she ”is effectively doing the state’s work and should be protected”.

”I’m very concerned that this woman is being threatened and have spoken to the joint operations committee to report to me on this matter. No volunteer or employee should be at risk for doing his job.

”People working for the state should be protected at all times. As far as I’m concerned whistle-blowers have to be protected,” Brown said.

She said that she has not been told that most of the refugees are to be deported.

Cape Town mayor Helen Zille said people working in the camps with the refugees are ”entitled to speak to the media. It’s nonsense that people are being threatened for doing so.”

The chief director of communications of home affairs, Siobhan McCarthy, denied that refugees remaining in the camps faced deportation.

”Home affairs officials are trained to assess immediately whether a person is a genuine refugee and asylum-seeker or merely an economic refugee. We don’t deny people South African papers if they’re genuine asylum-seekers,” she said.

She confirmed that 98% of refugees in camps in Johannesburg have been denied refugee status, but added: ”We can’t just deport people without the right to appeal our decisions.”

McCarthy conceded that home affairs ”does have a problem” with the manner in which staff address refugees. ”It’s unacceptable to use derogatory language towards asylum-seekers. It’s a problem among our staff,” she said.

Spokesperson for the NIA Lorna Daniels denied that there was an NIA presence in the camp.

”It is highly unlikely that those threatening the camp coordinator work for the NIA. Our people don’t operate like that.”

Threatened for talking to the media
Since speaking to the Mail & Guardian, Marti Weddepohl, camp coordinator at the Blue Waters camp, said she has been threatened on three occasions by unidentified white men who told her to stop speaking to the media.

When the M&G visited the Blue Waters camp a woman sitting in Weddepohl’s office identified herself as an employee of the National Intelligence Agency and asked not to be photographed.

Hours after Weddepohl was interviewed on Tuesday, a white man who refused to identify himself visited Weddepohl at the camp and told her not to speak to the media.

”He told me ‘you know you are very vulnerable and we know everything about you. We know that you are speaking to the media,”’ Weddepohl said.

”He refused to identify himself.”

On Wednesday morning, driving along Marine Drive outside Muizenberg on her way to the camp, Weddepohl said she was forced off the road by an unmarked white Opel Monza.

”The car drove behind me with its hazard lights on, flashing its headlights. I assumed it had to do with the camp and slowed down. The car overtook me and forced me to stop.

”Two white men wearing jackets got out and the one said: ‘You clearly don’t take this seriously. We’ve told you to stop talking to the media.”’

Later on Wednesday Weddepohl was stopped again by the same vehicle while leaving the camp. ”The same guys got out and were aggressive and said: ‘You and your family clearly need to be taught a lesson. You were warned to stop talking to the media.”’

Weddepohl said she was clearly being watched and followed and was certain that her telephone conversations were being monitored.