Foreigners deliberate whether to stay or go amid xenophobic attacks

Burundian stalwart Anicet Bigirimana says the UN High Commissioner for Refugees needs to step in to help deal with the xenophobic crisis. (Rajesh Jantilal)

Burundian stalwart Anicet Bigirimana says the UN High Commissioner for Refugees needs to step in to help deal with the xenophobic crisis. (Rajesh Jantilal)

It’s Freedom Day in South Africa, but entry to the large ground in Phoenix where hundreds of foreigners have sought refuge from xenophobic attacks in a makeshift tented refugee camp continues to be restricted.   

Phoenix, northwest of Durban, is one of four such camps in KwaZulu-Natal. The short residential road leading up to the ground is lined with dozens of blue and white traffic cones, and “no parking” signs.
Barrier tape blocks the entrance to the ground and a security guard politely instructs me to sign in at the “operations tent”, one of several medium-sized dark khaki tents, in which a few officials are seated.

When I tell them I’m there to chat to some of the foreign nationals, one of them sends a volunteer into the camp to see if anyone is willing to be interviewed.

My 10-year-old son and his teenage cousin kick a soccer ball around, while I stand at a temporary fence surrounding the camp, taking in the scene.

A few metres away from me, three men, standing on the inside of the camp, are hanging clothes on a fence. “Are you going home?” I ask them. “Yes,” says one of them, eyeing me suspiciously. They either don’t understand my other questions or don’t want to answer them. 

Change in camp
It’s been less than a week since I last visited, but some things seem to have changed. Then I had walked right into the camp, unrestricted. Today there are fewer people and less movement. An official who is not authorised to talk to the media says that there are only about 800 or so foreign nationals here now. The rest (there were once 3 200) have either been repatriated to their home countries or reintegrated into South African society. Of those remaining, “99%” are Malawian and will soon also be leaving, at which point he hopes he can start dismantling the camp, I overhear him telling a police officer.

Soon I am joined by two Malawians, Hanif Phiri and Willard Jali, who have agreed to talk to me. We sit on the ground inside the operations tent and chat.

Phiri is 25 years old and came to South Africa – he has been sewing curtains for “someone” for a living – in 2012. He is renting a room in Phoenix with a friend. Phiri only arrived at the camp four days ago. “I heard that people were going to come and attack us so before something happened, I decided to run,” he says.

However, he’s going back to his room today. “Some people say it’s [the xenophobic attacks] finished, some people say no – my friend who stays there says it’s cool, so I’m leaving today.

“I’m tired of living here [in the camp] – there’s no money – I have to go back to work.”

Pointless returning home
He says it’s pointless returning to Malawi. “In Malawi, it’s not easy to get a job. If you want a job, you have to finish school, then get a degree,” he explains, adding that this was not an option for him. “I needed to come here straight after school to make some money so that my parents can survive.  I’m the oldest son, I have three younger siblings and my mother is living with our neighbours in Malawi – my dad has moved far away from them, trying to make money selling vegetables.”

South Africa looked like a good solution for Phiri. “Here, as long as you speak a bit of English and you understand when your boss tells you to do something, you can get a job.”

Before he walks away, he gives me his phone number and asks me to pass it on to anyone who can assist him with “a job”. “Any job – I don’t choose a job as long as I’m paid at the end of the day. Even gardening, ma, I can do.”

Unlike Phiri, Jali has decided to go home and is waiting for the next group of buses to arrive. “I came here in November 2014 to look for a job, but due to the situation I can’t stay here,” he says. He has been living in Canelands in Verulam, north of Durban, where “a lot of Malawians live”.

“I was sleeping one night and I started hearing voices. A whole lot of people came in with pangas and knives – they wanted to kill me. I just ran. I took nothing with me; what I’m wearing is what I ran with.”

He sought refuge at a police station in Verulam and was brought to the camp, where he’s been based for the past two weeks. 

“Hey, I’m not feeling nice. I was selling clothes in Malawi, so I’ll go back to that. I came here because my brother said SA is better than Malawi – it’s not a good life in Malawi.  Things are difficult there. But there’s too much fear here.”

From Phoenix, I head to another campsite situated in Chatsworth, south of Durban. Here, there is a hubbub of activity.  A group of volunteers stands in a cramped red and white marquee organising hundreds of donated items into hampers that will be given to more than a thousand foreign nationals who are expected to leave the camp this week. 

I leave my son and nephew there and make my way into the camp, accompanied by an official from eThekwini municipality who is also not authorised to talk to the media. He explains the trend: “The people from Malawi want to leave; the people from Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Burundi want to stay.”

However, many people from Malawi have told him that they are only returning because a journey home would otherwise be extremely expensive. In this case, it’s free and they have every intention of returning.

We pass by a crowd of people standing near the entrance in a circle, stamping their feet to the sound of live music provided by a band. 

Burundian refugees
Further in, towards the end of the site, I meet a group of women from Burundi. One of them pulls out a black plastic water barrel and instructs me to sit on it. I find myself sandwiched between makeshift rooms made of flimsy black fabric attached to a fence behind me, the floors of which are occupied by groups of women and toddlers. 

At least a dozen Burundian men and women surround me, wanting to drum home a message to whoever it is that will listen. Their central African homeland has been plagued with bloody internal strife this week.

“Nobody is going back into Chatsworth … we are scared of what we saw during the xenophobia – there is no peace and security here,” says Ayesha Dizigira (20). 

“Nobody is going back to Burundi … in Burundi right now, people are dying. Things are very bad.”

“We need the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to see what they can do for us – we can’t remain here, we can’t go to Burundi,” says Anicet Bigirimana (45), who has lived in South Africa since 2006. A group leader of sorts, Bigirimana tells me that there are 85 people from Burundi at this camp and according to him, they all feel the same way. “What are we going to do in this country?  The people don’t want us here.”

Camp closure
I walk back to the entrance of the camp accompanied by Zubair Ryegure, a 30-year-old Burundian, who I interviewed for another article. He says he has heard rumours that the camp will close down soon; he’s worried about the refugees’ fate.

As we approach the entrance, the live band breaks out into a famous Bob Marley song, Three Little Birds. “Don’t worry about a thing/ ‘Cause every little things gonna be all right,” they sing.

For a moment I think back to a few hours earlier, when Hanif Phiri in Phoenix had asked me to help find him a job. My son had stood behind me, clutching my neck and whispering into my ear: “Mummy, Ahmedy [my brother] can give him a job.”

And I find myself wishing that life was really that simple: that every little thing is, indeed, going to be all right.

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