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Emi MacLean & Sharon Ekambaram
12 May 2015 14:57
The conflict that killed her father
pushed Elvira Munezero, a 39-year-old nurse-midwife, to flee Burundi in 2004. She
and her husband, Jean Njoragoze, sought refuge in South Africa where she has
been working to provide medical care to patients at St Mary’s hospital in
Pinetown in KwaZulu-Natal.
With a president refusing to step down, Burundi is
on a knife-edge again and many of its citizens have left the country in search
Elvira and her husband and five children
are among approximately 887 people in the last remaining camp for displaced
people in Chatsworth outside Durban. Following the attacks last month, nearly
8 000 displaced people sought shelter in three camps around Durban. Within a
fortnight there were mass repatriations of Zimbabweans, Mozambicans and Malawians
– 2 000 alone left on 39 buses – and later the camps were consolidated into a single
The residents of this camp now consist
primarily of Congolese and Burundian refugees and asylum-seekers who cannot
safely go back to their home countries. A smaller number of people –
approximately 45 from Mozambique, Kenya, Rwanda Tanzania and Zimbabwe – chose
not to be repatriated but do not yet feel safe to leave the camp. An additional
100 people live in a shelter in the town, and many others, including Somalis
and Ethiopians, remain displaced throughout the city.
Merely looking at the numbers – the
official death toll of seven – does not reflect the greater impact of
xenophobia in KwaZulu-Natal and elsewhere in South Africa. Hundreds of shops
and businesses were looted and destroyed, there were countless non-fatal
injuries, migrants embarked on a mass exodus from Durban, and South Africa has
been plunged into a deep crisis of faith and trust. It appears that South
Africa is eager to swiftly move on from history repeating itself. A flurry of
#StopXenophobia hashtags and talk of reintegration are juxtaposed against
recent security operations that aim to sweep away the inconvenient reality of
migration and the vulnerability of people forced to live on the margins of
society, all in the name of crime prevention.
Where were the police?
But Elvira and fellow residents of
Chatsworth ask: “Where were the police when the mobs were attacking us? How can
we go back to a community where our own neighbours turned against us? We have
seen this violence more than once, how can we trust that it won’t return?”
Last week psychologists from Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) assessed people in the Chatsworth camp and found that
many have symptoms of post-traumatic stress consistent with those of people
living in camps in South Sudan and Central African Republic, where people are
fleeing active conflicts. Some of those displaced in Durban face multiple and
compounded trauma, with this most recent displacement added to others
experienced before. The trauma related to repeated insults in their everyday
life in South Africa was also striking.
Their fear is real. Government
characterises Mozambican Emmanuel Josias Sithole’s killing as purely criminal. Malawian
Francois Kandulu’s body was found decapitated at a railway line next to a KwaZulu-Natal displacement camp, classified as an accident or a suicide.
But those people affected by xenophobic
violence are not all convinced – more so after Congolese and Ethiopian
nationals were killed recently in KwaZulu-Natal. Congolese hairdresser Lumona
Ziko was killed outside his home in Pietermaritzburg only four days after he
returned from a temporary shelter. Ethiopian shopkeeper Etebo Kebed was gunned
down inside his shop after receiving threats.
The killings are high water marks, but displaced
people narrate a flood of testimonies of the repeated daily discrimination they
face in taxis, on street corners, in workplaces and schools, and in accessing
public services, from hospitals to police stations.
Since mid-April, MSF has worked with eThekwini
authorities to provide medical care, psychosocial care and water and sanitation
support for people displaced by xenophobic violence in Durban. MSF provided
similar support following the xenophobic violence in 2008.
Camps cannot be a long-term, or even
medium-term, solution for people displaced by xenophobic violence. They are an
emergency stopgap measure to ensure security, shelter and survival. They must
meet international standards, and every effort must be made to ensure that they
need not last beyond the emergency phase.
Thus far, however, there have been only
very limited government-led reintegration efforts – mostly reaching out to
councillors and other local government leaders without involving people who are
displaced. Only a few dozen individuals have been transported from camps
accompanied by armed police officers. Where such mechanisms must be deployed, it
is a sign that communities may not yet be ready to accept returning foreign
While the government’s re-integration
plan does include extensive community dialogues, there is room for greater
inclusiveness. Experiences from 2008 show that from-the-ground-up reintegration
efforts bear lasting fruit. In Khayelitsha, in the Western Cape, communities
organised themselves to stem the tide of violence in 2008 and welcome the
displaced back home. Now, in 2015, there have been proactive efforts to ensure
that violence does not return and that foreign nationals feel protected.
The South African government should allow its
words of condemnation to be matched by its action, not contradicted. Breaking from its
initial sluggish response to the xenophobic violence, governmental actors then
spoke forcefully in opposition to the violence. Yet more recently the
government launched a recent crackdown netting undocumented foreigners through
Operation Fiela-Reclaim, which sends a conflicting message that is deeply at
odds with its role of urging reconciliation, dialogue and reintegration to the
Minister Jeff Radebe, who
heads inter-ministerial committee on migration, says that Operation Fiela-Reclaim is “an operation to rid
our country of illegal weapons, drug dens, prostitution rings and other illegal
activities” – but the statistics tell a different story.
The number of arrests from far outstrip the total of the reported arrests (307) made in April
in connection with xenophobic violence. Deploying the military, police and home
affairs officials with increased strength and resources by last week led to the
arrest of 745 undocumented foreigners – more than doubling the population of
the Lindela repatriation centre as they await eventual deportation. While
government says these arrests aim to crack down on crime and restore order,
fewer than 50 people among the total of 889 were arrested for crimes such as assault,
murder, illegal weapons possession, or drug-related crimes.
Given that virtually all of those
people arrested have been cited for being in South Africa without documents and
nothing more, these sweeping operations are an uncommonly militarised response
to contravening immigration law. It is hard not to believe that these actions signify a frantic knee-jerk security
Such actions send a message that
foreigners are a criminal scourge, rather than people fleeing abuses or seeking
a better life. This wrongly reinforces an “us versus them” mentality in the
minds of ordinary South Africans. In fact, the aggressive arrest, detention and deportations
of undocumented foreigners suggest potential to exacerbate xenophobia further.
Xenophobia must not be tolerated –
whether it is severe violence or the daily prejudice and occasional killing and
targeting of foreign shopkeepers that has become all too familiar in South
The strong public and political cries
for tolerance must not be limited to this moment and we should recognise that
mass exodus of foreigners is evidence of our society failing collectively. We
need to work harder to root out xenophobia – at the very least we all owe it to
the individuals and communities affected in recent weeks – but also foreign
nationals who undoubtedly will continue to come to South Africa as migrants,
refugees or asylum seekers because their of desperate circumstances.
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