Hundreds of people, originally from Rwanda, DR Congo, Burundi, and Bangladesh, sleeping in a corridor close to the offices of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) on October 8, 2019, in Cape Town. - These people are asking the UNHCR to intervene on their behalf as they say they don't feel safe in South Africa any more, due to high levels of crime as well as xenophobia, and want help in getting home, or to another country. (Photo by RODGER BOSCH / AFP) (Photo by RODGER BOSCH/AFP via Getty Images)
Forty-nine Congolese refugees living in South Africa have voluntarily been repatriated to their country of origin under a joint drive by the department of home affairs and United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
The Democratic Republic of the Congo nationals travelled last Friday to the capital Kinshasa and the city of Lubumbashi in the southeast, both considered safe areas for refugees to return to.
“Individual reviews carried out by UNHCR have ensured that returns are voluntary and that the refugees will return in safety and dignity,” the department of home affairs said earlier this week.
The refugees, who were living in Gauteng, are the first group from about 400 refugees who have indicated they want to return to their countries of origin, a number that might increase during the year.
“We believe that with time and a conducive environment, which must be created by all stakeholders, these numbers will increase exponentially,” Home Affairs Minister Aaron Motsoaledi said.
Last year, 275 refugees were assisted to return to their countries of origin.
A programme facilitated by UNHCR, Voluntary Return, aims to support any refugee and asylum-seeker wanting to go home.
Laura Padoan, the spokesperson for UNHCR in South Africa, said the prerequisite for voluntary repatriation was “refugees and asylum seekers first re-integrate in the community before they can be assisted to return home”.
“It is crucial that all repatriations are undertaken on a [voluntarily] basis and that people return home in safety and dignity as a matter of their personal choice,” Padoan added.
The repatriation comes as hostility towards immigrants is under the spotlight in parts of South Africa, particularly the actions of vigilante group Operation Dudula.
On Monday, one of Operation Dudula’s leaders, Nhlanhla “Lux” Dlamini, was released on bail after he was arrested for theft and defeating the ends of justice when the group’s members allegedly raided the home of a Soweto resident, accusing him of selling drugs.
Hafiz Mohammad, the spokesperson for the Paint City temporary refugee shelter in Cape Town, told the Mail & Guardian in early March how refugees were afraid that the Operation Dudula crackdown on immigrants in Gauteng would 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,” he said.
Mohammad said the more than 500 refugees at Paint City refused to leave the campsite unless they were guaranteed resettlement in a third country. He claimed 47 refugees had been “deported by force” in 2020.
Resettlement to a third country is a limited option for refugees worldwide, usually applying to less than 1% of the global refugee population, the UNHCR previously told the M&G.
Responding to Mohammad’s claim about refugees forcibly repatriated to their home countries, Padoan said 67 refugees and asylum seekers who previously resided at the Cape Town protest sites in 2021 were repatriated voluntarily.
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.
Both the department of home affairs and the UNHCR did not respond to queries about the progress in clearing the backlog.