'A jail you have to pay to stay in'

Safia (17) has never been to Somalia. She has lived in South Africa all her life and says “I feel more South African than Somalian,” in a broad Joburg accent. She has lots of friends, but this doesn’t mean she is entirely accepted—and her “otherness” is often used to exclude her.

Recently Safia—a keen footballer—was told she could not play soccer for a local girls’ team because she does not have a green South African ID document. “I used to play for Fordsburg Girls’, but they say you need an ID book to play. I showed them my refugee ID but they said it was not good enough. They said if I don’t have a green ID, I must bring my mother’s work permit.” In reality, the law says that the maroon refugee ID entitles the bearer to all the same rights as a citizen, except they may not vote or access RDP housing. Many public officials, employers and community groups choose to overlook this fact.

Somali refugee Sulega Dahir, feels there is no future for her children in this country. Sulega has lived here for 15 years and raised her children single-handedly, struggling to scrape together school fees and money for rent.
Her mother, Sulega Dahir, feels there is no future for her children in this country. Sulega has lived here for 15 years and raised her children single-handedly, struggling to scrape together school fees and money for rent. She fears that all her efforts to raise her children to be productive members of South African society will be stymied by the fact that they carry a refugee ID. She wonders if it will prevent her children from getting a job one day, supporting themselves and fulfilling their potential.

There is zero
“Our children have no hope: everything we want to do, they are not allowed,” she shakes her head in despair. “In Somalia there is zero. But in South Africa they can also do nothing. When South Africans were in exile in Tanzania they got everything, they came home very well-educated. But they don’t care about our children.”

Sulega has been living in a frustrating limbo for 15 years. “I don’t have a passport so I can’t leave, but at the same time they don’t want us to stay. I tried to sell in the street but they took away all my stuff. I tried to open a shop, they chased me out.” She now works at the Department of Home Affairs as an interpreter in Swahili, Arabic, Somali and Chichewa.

“When Thabo Mbeki was president I wrote to him explaining that I need help to get a passport and a bank account so I could save my money.” In return she received a pro forma letter saying the president could not give her money—a response that left her deeply insulted. “I have never taken a cent from South Africa. I pay my school fees, my rent and everything for myself. The Joburg Muslim charity helps us and that is how we survive.”

She sorts through a stack of pictures taken when the family lived in the Acacia camp for several months, after being driven from their home in the 2008 xenophobic attacks. The sadness and trauma of that time still lingers in her eyes. Many refugees in the camp had hoped the UNHCR would resettle them in other countries where they feel they would be able to integrate more fully.

They ended up going back to the homes they had left, having lost their money and belongings and starting all over again. “They don’t want us to stay but they also won’t let us leave,” she says resignedly. “I feel like I’m in a jail—but it’s a jail you have to pay to stay in.”

This article is part of our special report: Xenophobia: The reality, in conjunction with Oxfam.

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