Somali refugees stranded in Randfontein

A group of Somali refugees in Randfontein are facing homelessness and growing uncertainty, while government and the United Nations pass the buck on who should be responsible for their welfare.

The Mail & Guardian reported in May that the refugees had unsuccessfully attempted to cross into Botswana as they feared a resurgence of xenophobic violence in South Africa. They were brought back to Johannesburg and temporarily placed at the Riet Centre in Randfontein: a different kind of no-man’s land.

Since the UNHCR’s grant dried up in June, the refugees rely on the goodwill of local shopkeepers for their survival. They share three broken toilets at the centre and are unsure of where their next meal will come from.
Each morning, one or two members of the group go into town to scavenge for the day’s basic needs. If they’re lucky, they might also get a little milk for their children.

The background to the story is complex, and it is not clear who is ultimately responsible for the refugees’ welfare. But everyone agrees that the current situation is untenable.

Six months ago the UNHCR offered the refugees a payment of R6 000 per family, regardless of size, or R3 000 per single person on condition that they leave the centre and ‘reintegrate” into the larger community.

The refugees refused, claiming there was no guarantee of their long-term safety.

‘We don’t know what our future will be like. No one seems to care, and the situation is so frustrating. I don’t want to integrate with the locals because I don’t trust them, I would rather be in Somalia,” said Abdi Mohammed Hassan, one of the refugees who spoke to M&G at Riet Centre.

For its part, the UNHCR says it cannot afford to continue to pay the daily allowance of R25 per person to cover refugees’ living costs at the centre. This, says Riets manager Ivan Kortje, has put him in an impossible position because he has no power to evict the Somalis, but is losing money as long as they stay on his property. ‘I’m a refugee in my own country,” he told M&G. Kortje and the refugees have been at loggerheads over the situation, and a mediation process was held recently to restore calm.

Tina Ghelli, UNHCR spokesperson, told the M&G that the Riet Centre has already received almost R1,4-million this year—far beyond what her organisation would normally contribute.

‘UNHCR and its partner organisations do not usually provide accommodation to asylum seekers and refugees in South Africa. It is the individual’s responsibility to find accommodation,” she said.

Jason Brickhill, a Legal Resources Centre lawyer, has taken up the Somali refugees’ case. He feels that both the UNHCR and the government are ducking their responsibilities, although he concedes that the legal position is unclear.

‘We don’t know who will hear our cries’
The refugees say government is failing them and they want to leave the country. ‘We are suffering. The government is not doing anything, UNHCR is turning a deaf ear and we don’t know who will hear our cries,” says Hassan. The University of Nairobi economics graduate is also concerned about increasing police harassment and arrests, ostensibly because the refugees lack ‘proper documentation”.

UNHCR told M&G that they are currently processing applications from 494 refugees who wish to be resettled in a third country. They could not confirm if any of the Somali refugees at Riet Centre are among them.

The Department of Home Affairs said they are aware of the situation at Riet Centre.

Communications director Siobhan McCarthy said the responsibility for the refugees’ welfare lies with the UNHCR and ‘relevant government departments” such as Social Development and Health.

But when asked about whose responsibility it is to provide for the refugees, the department of social development referred the M&G‘s questions to the Department of Home Affairs.

Meanwhile, it is not only the 80 adults who are suffering. There are about 14 children living with their families at the Centre, including a six-month-old baby. The South African Constitution guarantees every child regardless of their nationality the right to protection, education and healthcare—which the refugees say they are not getting.

Zanele Mngadi of the department of social development said the children at the Centre do not qualify for assistance under the Child Care Act as they are with their parents, but they can apply for certain grants governed by the Social Assistance Act.

  • Additional reporting by Qudsiya Karrim

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