/ 31 October 2008

Shut out and sent home

Despite the obvious need for refugee camps, government plans to close them down this Friday, reports Pearlie Joubert.

Two foreign nationals were killed and a Congolese woman raped in townships in the Western Cape this week as the authorities prepared to close all the refugee camps on Friday. Services will be cut off to the 600 people who are still living in them.

But frantic last-minute negotiations between civil society groups and city officials, including Western Cape Premier Lynne Brown, were under way to halt the closure of the camps.

At the same time, the city, the Human Rights Commission and the United Nations were putting intensified pressure on foreign nationals to leave the camps and reintegrate themselves into society.

The Mail & Guardian has learned that after leaving the camps this week two foreigners were killed, in Hermanus and Parow, and that Congolese national Claudine Tuatu (not her real name) was raped in Philippi’s Samora Machel settlement.

After five months in various camps, Tuatu and her husband returned to Samora Machel, where they had lived before the outbreak of xenophobic violence earlier this year.

Said Tuatu: ”We were told by white people from government that the townships are now safe and that we must leave the camps. We were very scared, but we decided to go back because they said the camps are closing.

”On Wednesday I was at the house in Samora Machel. Three Xhosa men came and asked me where my husband was. I told them he was in town. I couldn’t speak Xhosa to them. They were angry and called me kwerekwere.

”They told me to go away and go back to my country. Then they held me down and one of them raped me. ‘Now we hope you will listen and leave our country,’ the man told me.

”They said: ‘Do you understand us? We will kill you if you come back here.”’

The couple and their four children are among 1 000 refugees still in Cape Town’s Youngsfield and Blue Waters camps.

Tanzanian national Ebrahim Isaac Juma, who has been living and working in South Africa for nine years, was stabbed to death in Parow on Tuesday, while Somali national Mohamed Jusuf was murdered in his shop in the Hermanus town centre.

A Hermanus police officer who cannot be named said Jusuf was killed ”because he is a foreigner. Our people don’t like the foreigners and the police can’t always protect them.”

Juma and Jusuf left the camps after Cape Town mayor Helen Zille and head of provincial disaster management Hildegarde Fast insisted that they would be closed on Friday.

Fast said that all services to Blue Waters, the last camp in the country, will be stopped. This is despite the fact that the hundreds of refugees remaining there are adamant that they either have nowhere to go, are too scared to reintegrate back into the townships or want to go back to their countries.

The refugees accepted R750 from the United Nations High Commission to leave the camps.

Juma’s friend, Shaban Manirambona, said: ”Juma and I were in Harmony Park together. The government officials came and told us that we have to reintegrate and accept the money and go. They said if we don’t decide they will close the camps and we will get nothing. Juma took the money and went to Parow because he was too scared to go and live in the townships.

”His friend and him were walking down the road when five men approached them. They said: ‘Hey, kwerikweris, you’re getting money for nothing while we get nothing. Give us your money!’ Ebrahim said: ‘No, my brothers! We’ve lost everything and you can’t take the little we have.’ They then started stabbing him. His friend ran away and when he returned Ebrahim was dead.”

If government and the city push through with their plans to close the camps, those refugees left on the sand dunes outside Muizenberg will have to fend for themselves and either go back to their countries or the townships from which they were chased.

Last Friday city officials and the disaster management stopped all services to Youngsfield camp, saying people must reintegrate or repatriate — although most of the refugees in the camps have been denied South African refugee status by the department of home affairs.

When the M&G visited the camp on Monday most women and children and groups of young men had not received food or any basic services for four days.

On Saturday, 24 hours after food-delivery to this camp was stopped, the camp management had a braai in the parking lot in front of the refugees. ”This was a private decision between me and my men and has nothing to do with anybody. I don’t need to explain anything to you,” camp manager Nico Ehlers told the M&G.

Meanwhile, civil society organisations and volunteers who have been assisting the refugees over the past five months are appalled by the way the camps are closing and are threatening legal action.

”We will do whatever it takes to keep the camps open because some people are simply not ready to reintegrate. Government closed the camps in Gauteng and they’re desperate to do the same here without taking the Constitution into account. They’re callous and insensitive in the way they’re dealing with this problem — the refugees didn’t displace themselves, they were chased from where they lived. How can the authorities cut off services and say go and fend for yourselves when people are still under threat?,” said Fatima Hassan of the Aids Law Project. ”If 100 000 whites were under threat, would they be treated similarly? Do Africans have a lower value?”

This week the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) and other civil society organisations sent a lawyer’s letter to Fast, Zille and Brown, calling the government’s insistence on closing the camps ”inhumane” and ”draconian”.

The TAC gave the province and city 24 hours either to instruct that camps not be closed down — officials use the word ”de-register” rather than ”close down” — or face an urgent interdict to try to force them to do so.

”Our clients [the refugees] are deeply concerned at this state of affairs, which our clients contend is in violation of fundamental rights to dignity, security, food, healthcare and shelter as enshrined in our Constitution, quite apart from being essentially inhumane,” stated the letter, drawn up by Deneys Reitz.

In the letter the TAC asks the premier and mayor to undertake ”to keep remaining shelters open (specifically Blue Waters and Youngsfield, in the event you agree to restore services there) until such time as processes — have been exhausted”.