/ 19 March 2009

Zim refugees: UNHCR warns of xenophobic attacks

Preventing the transportation of refugees from Musina to Johannesburg was likely to ignite xenophobic attacks in the Limpopo town, the UN High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) said on Thursday.

”The UNHCR is caught between a rock and a hard place because you need to maintain fluidity in Musina. We can’t afford congestion because as soon as the two alternative shelters we have overflow, then there will be problems with residents. Xenophobic attacks could erupt,” said the organisation’s coordinator Bruno Geddo.

He said it was vital for the Gauteng provincial government to lift a ban that prohibits the UNHCR from transporting Zimbabweans to Johannesburg.

The city stopped the transportation of Zimbabweans to Johannesburg following a meeting last Friday, saying the UNHCR had created a refugee crisis in Johannesburg.

”It isn’t right for [the UNHCR] to bring these people into the city. They should have had the decency to communicate to the city [their plans],” said spokesperson for provincial department of local government Themba Sepotokele last Friday.

Many of the Zimbabweans who have arrived in Johannesburg are congregating around the Central Methodist Church, but as many as 2 000 refugees are now living on the streets around the church.

This is causing friction with business people in the vicinity of the church.

”If they had communicated to the city we would not be having this crisis,” said Sepotokele.

The UNHCR denied responsibility for the situation last Friday. They said Zimbabwean refugees in Musina, who had their papers but not the funds to travel further into South Africa, were only provided with transport.

”The [Musina] municipality asked us to facilitate their travel,” said UNHCR regional representative for Southern Africa, Sanda Kimbimbi.

”But we have never been telling anyone to go to the Central Methodist Church, or Johannesburg, or Gauteng.”

Kimbimbi maintains that the Musina refugees came to Johannesburg in search of jobs, and would have travelled there, perhaps by more dangerous means, regardless of the UNHCR’s help.

”We cannot be held responsible for this situation. I’m sorry, we cannot,” said Kimbimbi.

Meanwhile, the organisation was consulting with farmers in Musina to emply refugees for the harvesting season.

”Together with the International Organisation for Migration, we are trying to get them to work in farms and also trying to get those stuck in Johannesburg without jobs to get home to alleviate the pressure,” said Geddo.

With between 200 and 400 refugees arriving at the two shelters in Musina daily, Geddo said the organisation needed to resume transportation as soon as possible.

”Soon, these shelters will be full and if they are full, we’ll be having problems,” he said. – Sapa