‘When people don’t have work and are hungry, they blame foreigners’

A dilapidated shipping container outside a tent that offers temporary shelter to refugees and asylum seekers at Paint City in Bellville, Cape Town, has been the shelter’s administrative building since April 2020. 

Inside, fly paper hangs from the roof, peppered with fresh catches. A small fan does little to relieve the stifling heat.

From behind his desk, Hafiz Mohammad, a spokesperson for the Paint City shelter, says the refugees do not want to remain in South Africa. “We do not feel safe. A lot of our brothers and sisters already died because of xenophobia.” 

Two temporary shelters — Paint City and Wingfield in Maitland, Cape Town — were erected in 2020 during the hard lockdown under the Covid-19 Disaster Management Act. This was after the City of Cape Town enforced its bylaws to end a six-month protest by refugees and asylum seekers. Xenophobic attacks and the inability to finalise legal papers led to the protracted protest, which started on 8 October 2019.

Most people at the Wingfield site either moved back to the neighbourhoods where they had lived or were repatriated to their country of origin through programmes the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) facilitated. 

Women do their washing around the only water source at the refugee camp at the Belville taxi rank, Cape Town. Photo by David Harrison

The people remaining at Paint City want to relocate to countries other than their country of origin, and want the UNHCR to facilitate the move. 

The only entry into the fenced campsite is through a heavy steel gate that is guarded day and night. Inside, more than 500 people are living off donations from individuals and the nonprofit organisation, Gift of the Givers. They get meals twice a day — breakfast at 9am and supper at 7pm.

Since the Mail & Guardian’s visit to the camp in May 2021, the numbers have only slightly decreased — from 528 to 519 — the result of two families leaving. Of the 519 people, 200 are children. 

Last year, Home Affairs Minister Aaron Motsoaledi said the campsite would be closed on 30 April 2021. But that didn’t happen. Part of the fence was removed, and the closing date was extended. Today, the tent still provides temporary shelter, and portable toilets are still in place, but in February, the shower facilities were removed

Women do their washing around the only water source at the refugee camp at the Belville taxi rank, Cape Town. Photo by David Harrison

Caroline Hajira, a Tanzanian refugee and mother to nine children, had previously told the M&G that she feared for her children’s safety, and that living conditions at the shelter were not favourable for women and children. 

Since then, nothing has changed, she said, adding: “All foreigners are suffering in South Africa.” 

A refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Albert Luninga, joined the discussion, saying that “as a refugee, you don’t have any rights in the country. We see our children’s future destroyed.”

Mohammad believes the South African government will not help. “[They] are not going to do anything, that is the reality. But we have the right to ask the UNHCR. The refugee and asylum seeker is their duty, if they do not do that, we can complain to those who are superior [to them].”

Massoud Ndunduye prepares to take a shower inside a portable toilet a month after the showers were taken away from the refugee camp at the Belville taxi rank, Cape Town. Photo by David Harrison

Luninga says the UNHCR “has a mandate” to assist. 

Mohammad says Paint City’s residents have contacted the UNHCR and the department of home affairs, but received no responses. The last meeting between residents and home affairs was in May 2021, and although they stayed in contact with the UNHCR, their communication also faded at the end of last year. 

Mohammad lost his small business during violent protests in Kimberley in 2016. He says the refugees are scared that the “Operation Dudula” protests in Gauteng will spread to the Western Cape. 

“We do not want to stay in South Africa. We do not feel safe. Foreigners are blamed for everything. When people don’t have work, they blame foreigners, when people are hungry, they blame foreigners. If people have a problem, they blame foreigners.”

The M&G phoned and sent several emails and messages to home affairs and minister Motsoaledi’s office. No responses were forthcoming. 

The UNHCR said it no longer “directly engaged” with the refugees and asylum seekers at Paint City after the end of the reintegration project it led in July 2021. 

Dutamo Bufebo inside the large tent where he sleeps on the floor at the refugee camp at the Belville taxi rank, Cape Town. Photo by David Harrison

A verification process in October and November 2020 showed that most people living in Paint City and Wingfield were either asylum seekers whose claims were in a backlog at the home affairs department or were undocumented. 

“Those who were in the asylum process were issued notices of appeal, but the group has repeated its request for resettlement and chose not to engage any further with the asylum process,” said the UNHCR’s Kiran Kaur. 

In March 2020, the Women and Children Concern organisation wrote to the UNHCR requesting the resettlement of asylum seekers and refugees in another country because of xenophobic attacks in South Africa.

But Kaur said that “resettlement to a third country is a very limited option for refugees worldwide, which usually covers less than 1% of the global refugee population”.

“To protect the integrity of the resettlement programme, there will be no group resettlement or preferential treatment to individuals from this group [at Paint City].” 

Francine Nduyimana sits in front of her small shelter inside the tent of the rxefugee camp at the Belville taxi rank, Cape Town. Photo by David Harrison

The UNHCR says people who seek asylum or refugee status are subject to the asylum procedures in the country. 

South Africa is a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. Last week, Human Rights Watch scrutinised the manner in which the country handles refugees and asylum seekers.

The human rights advocacy group placed South Africa on its list of states abusing refugees and asylum seekers and appealed to the African Union to “uphold their commitments under regional and international law” to protect refugees and asylum seekers. 

“In several states, authorities have arbitrarily detained or abused asylum seekers and refugees, including in Algeria, Egypt, Libya, South Africa, and Tanzania,” it said.

March 11 2022 – Nursery school teacher Alice Kitenza with a group of young children at the Refugee camp at the Belville taxi rank, Cape Town. Photo by David Harrison

James Chapman, legal adviser and head of advocacy at the refugee Scalabrini Centre in Cape Town, says of migrant laws that South Africa is by and large progressive compared to other countries. The laws include the Refugees Act 130 of 1998 and regulations read with the Immigration Act, the Constitution and other applicable legislation.

But, he says, amendments to the Refugee Act that came into force on 1 January 2020 “substantially limit access to and enjoyment of protection offered prior to the amendments”.

Motsoaledi said the government was reviewing the Refugee Act, the Citizenship Act and the Immigration Act, “to align them and simplify them for everyone”.

“We recognise that some of our laws were enacted in a period where things were very different to how they are now … South Africa does not have a problem with people who are legally seeking protection. The challenge is with those who are here illegally,” he said at a bilateral meeting between the government and the UNHCR. 

Chapman says there are gaps between legislation and day-to-day practice. The Refugees Act that theoretically provides applications for and access to asylum, but there are thousands, “if not hundreds of thousands” of people who are unable to get into the department’s refugee reception offices.

And, says Chapman, the standard of refugee status determination is “fairly poor in South Africa”, despite the progressive legislation. 

“Poor refugee status determination along with a degree of corruption in the system results in individuals, who in terms of the law fall under the refugee definition and should be recognised as refugees, not being recognised as refugees and consequently they are not afforded the corresponding protection and rights.”

A women feeds a young child at the Refugee camp at the Belville taxi rank, Cape Town. Photo by David Harrison

Back behind Paint City’s steel gate the refugees remain uncertain of their future. 

“Right now we actually don’t know what is going to happen,” says Mohammad. He believes South Africa does not want the refugees to stay, but the country is also not willing to allow them to leave. 

In addition to legislation that can jeopardise refugees and asylum seekers’ hopes for a safer and economically stable environment, corrupt officials exploit vulnerable foreigners. 

In exchange for permanent residency in South Africa, you will have to pay about R70 000 to R80 000, depending on your “connections”, says the holder of an asylum visa who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Hafiz Mohammed acts as spokesperson for the Refugee camp at the Belville taxi rank, Cape Town. Photo by David Harrison

The 32-year-old said for foreigners to obtain legal documents they had to get involved in dubious deals with government officials. Born in Ethiopia, he has been living and working in South Africa since 2008. His visa needs to be renewed every four years and he knows that to renew it, he must have cash to pay upfront for services that should be free. 

If you don’t pay, your application “will just get lost” and you will have to reapply, he says. 

Payments vary depending on the official offering “help” on the day. If you are lucky you only have to pay R1 000 or R2 000, but some people pay up to R11 000 to renew their refugee or asylum visa. 

The man counts himself fortunate because many foreigners have three- or six-month visas and have to pay more frequently to renew their legal status. 

Refugee camp at the Belville taxi rank, Cape Town. Photo by David Harrison

But he cannot afford permanent residency. According to the law, one can apply for South African citizenship after living in the country for at least five years, which the Ethiopian asylum visa holder was eligible for eight years ago. 

He says that to have an application reviewed and processed could cost between R70 000 and R80 000. 

Cameras put in place at home affair offices to fight corruption made bribes more difficult, but not impossible, he said. Officials tell applicants to place the money in rubbish bins or slip it between the pages of a book.

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Eunice Stoltz
Eunice Stoltz is a general news reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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