Eviction threat to refugees

The Cape Town city council has filed an eviction notice attempting to force about 400 refugees out of the Blue Waters safety camp near Muizenberg, despite rumbling xenophobic violence that has seen nine foreign nationals killed in the past six weeks in the Western Cape.

Last week the city council asked the Western Cape High Court for permission to evict the refugees.

The camp opened in May last year after xenophobic attacks that left more than 100 foreign nationals dead and another 60 000 homeless across South Africa. Although the majority of the country’s refugees have either reintegrated within South Africa or returned to their home countries, hundreds still fear violent retribution.

Peter Cronje of the City of Cape Town says the group at Blue Waters represents a small minority of the initial refugees from the xenophobic attacks. “We had more than 20 000 people [in the Western Cape] in safety sites — and 19 600 of those have now relocated. We are now down to the last [few] people.”

Cronje says that the Blue Waters residents have “refused repeated offers of help by all the agencies involved ... We made it clear that this was not a permanent solution. You cannot have refugee camps in the middle of society.”

But according to volunteer Tracey Saunders, who has worked with refugees at the camp since last May, the population of Blue Waters constitutes the “most vulnerable of the vulnerable”.

“Some — have tried to reintegrate on more than one occasion,” she says. “Because they fear for their safety they’re not going back.”

One of the tent residents at Blue Waters was raped before coming to the camp and her husband and children were beaten before fleeing their home in the Khayelitsha township. “Once you lose your trust, it’s very hard to get it back again,” she says.

Despite Cronje’s insistence that the South African Police Service has worked closely with the city and province to ensure security is scaled up, violent incidents since last year’s attacks have further fuelled refugees’ fears.

Last month seven Zimbabwean refugees were burned to death in their shack in the informal settlement of De Doorns in the Western Cape. In response to the incident police raided the settlement and arrested more than 300 foreign nationals who lacked proper documentation.

Asad Abbullahi, a Somalian who came to South Africa in 2004, says that at least 30 men who have left Blue Waters have since been killed. He has meticulously collected the names of all Somalis who have died since Blue Waters’s inception. “People leave and they get shot. Why would we leave? There’s no safety,” Abbullahi says.

“We are not saying that communities are 100% safe, but we are saying that the crisis that led to the setting up of these safety sites has ended,” says Cronje.

But civil society and legal organisations fear that the timing of the city’s eviction notice so close to the national election will only spur more tensions and violence.

“Anybody who’s following this knows that this is going to be a spark for more violence,” Saunders says. “If you listen to word on the street, there’s a lot of talk like ‘when Zuma comes, we’re going to get rid of the kwere­kweres’.”

For Henke Smith of the Legal Resources Centre, the city’s eviction notice places another burden on already over-stretched civil society. “Why does the state decide that it is the responsibility of civil society to look after refugees? Must the communities now take responsibility for what the state assumed responsibility for by opening the camp?

“It’s not fair to ask civil society ‘How high are you going to jump?’ if the state says ‘I am not taking responsibility’,” Smith says.

According to Lawrence Mgbangson, senior liaison officer of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the city did not inform the commissioner that an eviction order would be filed this week. “I do not think that there is a need for eviction at this stage. If they do any eviction, then it’s contrary to what we agreed.”

Eviction is “a last resort”, Mgbangson says. “If the people leave the centre they should leave in safety and dignity, they shouldn’t be evicted.”

Evictions across the country have led to violence. Last week refugees and camp officials clashed as tents were burned in response to an eviction notice served at Klerksoord refugee camp north of Pretoria. Oxfam has expressed concern over the closure of camps and the resulting influx of refugees into local communities.

Mara Kardas-Nelson

Mara Kardas-Nelson

Mara Kardas-Nelson is a journalist with the Mail & Guardian's Centre for Health Journalism, where she focuses on access to medicine, health policy, financing, and planning. She has been contributing to the Mail & Guardian since 2009, writing on a wide variety of topics ranging from the environment to development to local culture. In 2010 she shared a Mondi Shanduka Newspaper award with photographer Sam Reinders for their work on acid mine drainage in Gauteng and Mpumalanga. Her work has appeared in publications across Africa, North America, and Europe.  Read more from Mara Kardas-Nelson

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