Angolan refugees fear repatriation

'I feel like a Capetonian more than anything else," says Irene Kainda with an accent that distantly ­references her Angolan roots and just hints at growing up in the city's flatlands.

"I came to South Africa when I was seven. I don't remember Angola, I don't know where I am from and who or where my family there is," says the 21-year-old, who is studying hotel management and doing her internship at a Sea Point beachfront hotel where she was interviewed by the Mail & Guardian.

Kainda is effervescent and smart, with a natural warmth that appears tailor-made for the career she is pursuing. Having arrived in South Africa in 1998 with her mother and four-year-old brother Felipe, Kainda spent most of her early years living in the city's various shack settlements and shelters until her mother abandoned them in 2006 to return to Angola.

After three years in a homeless shelter in Eerste Rivier where "we never felt safe", Irene and Felipe were taken in by Good Samaritans, who were not their legal guardians, "but were our parents", Kainda says.   

The 21-year-old is putting herself through hotel school with a bursary and also paying for 19-year-old Felipe's studies at the Cape Town University of Technology.

"I'm the driven one, but Felipe is the clever one in our family, so I support him and push him at his studies," says Kainda, laughing.

Hers appears to be the sort of goodnews immigrant story that suggests South Africa can provide succour for those driven from their homelands by war or state oppression.

Voluntary repatriation
But Kainda is worried: The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) recommended in October 2009 that, with the civil war in Angola having ended in 2002, its economy starting to grow and apparent political stability, the refugee status of Angolans be revoked by June 30 last year.

Says Kainda: "I still have a refugee permit, which runs out on May 31, but then what? Will I be kicked out of the country when I go to home affairs to renew it? Where do Felipe and I go to in Angola? We don't know who our family is, or where they live. How will I support us?"

The department of home affairs has started notifying Angolan refugees that the deadline for voluntary repatriation ends on May 31.

But, according to Angolan refugees and non-governmental organisations that deal with refugee rights, such as the Cape Town-based Scalabrini Centre, the repatriation process appears to be racked by inefficiency and a lack of information.

"It is happening almost under the radar, with no clear communication between the department and the refugees, which is leading to a lot of anxiety and concern within the community," says Scalabrini advocacy officer Marelize Ackermann. Her organisation has 78 Angolan clients 56 of whom are being assisted with cessation procedures, she says.

Quiri Mendes, the deputy president of the Angolan Association for the Sons of Angola, says several of the organisation's members have  had problems when visiting home affairs to renew their refugee papers: "We used to renew them for up to two years, but now it is six months, a month, or just until May 31. This is making people very worried because we are not being told what will happen next."

Long stay
Refugees are being asked to fill in an "Angolan cessation profiling form" when they visit home affairs centres to renew their documentation. Having been raised in South Africa's education system and intent on one day opening her own hotel, Kainda has applied for an exemption for herself and her brother from the repatriation process and has officially asked that she be "conferred an immigration status that appropriately protects the rights and interest that she acquired as a result of such a long stay". She has yet to hear from home affairs.

Kainda, who has, aside from her refugee papers, only her mother's Angolan identity book and her own baptism certificate from Angola as proof of identity, says she has been to the Angolan consulate hoping to find alternatives.

"Maybe I can get an Angolan passport and then go back, apply for a student visa from South Africa, and come back here again to study. But I am worried because, if my papers are not renewed at the end of May, I will be illegal and not able to continue my internship or write exams," she says.

According to the Scalabrini Centre, there are many Angolan orphans in Cape Town's shelters. How they will be repatriated and what their future in Angola will be remains unclear, according to Lotte Manicom, an advocacy assistant with Scalabrini.

There is also concern about trinational children, born in South Africa with one parent being Angolan and the other of a different nationality. Angolan pastor Andre Capita, who is married to a Tanzanian refugee, is concerned about his three children, who range in age from 12 years old to nine months and who "do not speak any Portuguese or an indigenous language. They were all born here. This will be a problem for them".

But Capita believes there may be other potential problems for him. A recruiter and officer for the Front for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda (Flec) in the 1990s, Capita is concerned about freedom of political association and expression in Angola, especially as there are still calls for the oil-rich enclave to secede from Angola.

"I speak my mind when I see injustice, I can't just keep it in my head," says Capita. "I hear stories up to today of activists or people in Cabinda who criticise the government 'disappearing'. In South Africa, you have a mature democracy, but this is not the case in Angola, so I am worried about the safety of myself and my family if I go back and am critical of the government."

Although refugees are being told by home affairs officials that May 31 is the cut-off date for their repatriation, the South African Cabinet decided this week to make August 31 the official cut-off date.

Deputy director for immigration Jackie McKay told the M&G that the South African government had "received assurances" from their Angolan counterparts that there would be no political intimidation of returnees, who would be assured of their rights to freedom of expression and association and that the UNHCR was "convinced" that Angola was a stable democracy.

McKay added that the UNHCR would be responsible for "flying" Angolans home and that the government "had given a commitment to resettle and to reintegrate" returnees. He said those

 Angolans who wished to remain in South Africa to live or study could apply for Angolan passports from the consulate and then apply for work and study visas while in South Africa.

McKay was unable to approximate how many cases home affairs was currently dealing with and whether they would all be resolved by the new cut-off date.

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Niren Tolsi
Niren Tolsi is a freelance journalist whose interests include social justice, citizen mobilisation and state violence, protest, the Constitution and Constitutional Court, football and Test cricket.

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