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No place to call home: Desperate foreign nationals look to flee 'hate' in SA

Hundreds of foreign nationals from the DRC, Burundi, Somalia, Pakistan and Zimbabwe have been camping at the United Nations Refugee Agency offices in Cape Town since last Tuesday, desperate to leave a country they once called home.

Foreign nationals wait at the UN Refugee Agency office in Cape Town for assistance in leaving South Africa on 9 October 2019. Picture: Kaylynn Palm/EWN

CAPE TOWN - Multi-coloured blankets, pillows made from heaps of clothing and plastic bags of food lie scattered on the floor, while the sound of babies crying fills the packed foyer of the United Nations Refugee Agency.

There, hundreds of refugees continued a sit-in protest for the seventh day in Cape Town on Monday.

Foreign nationals from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi, Somalia, Pakistan and Zimbabwe have been camping inside and outside the agency offices since last Tuesday. They're desperate to leave a country they once called home – and now want to leave because of safety concerns and xenophobia.

Inside the Waldorf Arcade, where the agency office was situated and a number of businesses operate, were refugees and asylum seekers young and old.

Some lay on the floor on blankets and cardboard, others were sitting feeding and changing their babies inside the crowded and loud foyer. Older children played card games to entertain themselves as the leaders continued to find a way for them to leave South Africa.

Eyewitness News visited the site on the first day of the action, on Tuesday last week, when the foyer was half full. Since then, the numbers have grown, with more people sleeping over in the hope of catching a flight out of South Africa. Foreign nationals said they were simply unhappy about living in this country, saying that they’d had enough of ongoing assaults, threats and business robberies in communities and public spaces.

Congolese leader Papy Sukami said that they have had enough of the culture of xenophobia. He said that in this country xenophobia started as a feeling, now it’s a behaviour.

Sukami said simple things like picking up a phone in a train and talking, foreigners could become a victim of a robbery or even be assaulted. He said that two weeks ago, a foreign national was thrown out of a train in Woodstock and he was still in hospital. “Currently we are the minority in this country, and it is difficult to defend ourselves especially in the townships and communities. So, for us it's better to live in the Kalahari Desert, at least we will be safe there, instead of being killed in a xenophobia attack in South Africa,” Sukami said.

A Burundi woman, who did not want to be named, played with her baby boy on the floor. The four-month-old baby, wrapped up in a blue blanket, spent a few nights sleeping between three women. The mother said it was uncomfortable sleeping on the cold, hard floor, but it was the sacrifice she would make to leave a country she thought was welcoming and safe.

“We just put the box on the floor and blankets and sleep here. We don’t have a choice but to do this because of all the problems we facing in this country. As foreigners, we are being targeted, I don’t know why people have this hate towards us.”

Another Burundi woman Silva Nahinana said they cannot wear their traditional attires anymore because people will know they are either Bangladesh, Congolese or a Burundian and will target them. “If you don’t talk Xhosa in a train or taxi you in danger. We get questioned, we’re threatened, assaulted. You blame us for everything - crime, taking hospital space and jobs, so if you don’t want us here, we will leave.”

DRC activist JP Balous said they wanted an immediate solution because many foreigners did not want to go back to their communities. “Instead of being killed without any justice being done, they will rather stay here in the hands of the agency, where they are safer.

“While there might not be extreme violence or attacks against foreigners being reported in the media, however, daily in the Western Cape our women, children are still being assaulted, threatened and treated like they are nothing, and that is unacceptable.”

The UN Refugee Agency, in a statement, said it was working closely with authorities to continue providing protection through the issuance of appropriate identity documentation, to facilitate access to healthcare, education and employment opportunities for all refugees and asylum seekers. The agency said it had increased its capacity and that of their partner organisations to meet immediate needs as well as engage with persons of concern through community outreach activities.

It added that the country was hosting close to 268,000 refugees and asylum seekers. However, it could not clarify or confirm whether they would be assisting refugees to leave the country following the sit-in.

Meanwhile, the Western Cape Refugee and Migrant Forum said that resettlement by the agency was not a practical solution. The forum consisted of several migrant-related organisations.

It said it concurred with the expressed concerns that many asylum-seekers and refugee communities were particularly fearful especially at this time of heightened xenophobic tension. The forum stated that instead of resettlement, the solution to this fear was in countering xenophobia and encouraging integration.

It said resettlement was only for refugees with specific protection needs and vulnerabilities which was determined by UNHCR on a case-by-case basis only.

The number of refugees that could be resettled from South Africa by the UNHCR was very small. According to the forum in 2015, for example, only 379 refugees were resettled. There were currently around 80,000 recognised refugees in the country.

The forum added that the number of refugees that could be resettled depended on the governments where they would be accepted to for example, the USA, and Canada.

The Adonis Musati Project's Gahlia Brogneri said they’d been informed by refugees and asylum seekers who were invited to the illegal sit-in that they have been promised resettlement should they participate in this protest. “This is simply not true and false expectations are being raised at the expense of this refugee community. We're concerned about the women and children who are at risk.”

On Friday, leaders from Western Cape Refugee communities met at the Scalabrini Centre and called on refugees and asylum seekers who were participating in the illegal sit-in to disperse and go back home.

Unifam’s Patrick Matenga said that those participating in the sit-in were being misled. “The meeting with UNRA said there is no settlement that is promised to anyone, no matter how long they sit-in, there'll be no resettlement." He added that while they acknowledged that there were many challenges faced by refugees, it could not also ignore the hospitality.

“Unlike many countries in the world, refugees and asylum seekers have the right to work, study and trade freely in South Africa,” said Matenga.

Immigration lawyer Gary Eisenberg said the fact that refugees were now sitting in at the UN office was because they felt abandoned by government and that it was not protecting them against violence. He said there was a serious problem with law and order and if foreigners were knocking on the doors of the UN demanding to leave the country, it should be very concerning.

“Many of them find themselves stranded; they don’t have the means financially to leave. The UN agency doesn’t have the mandate to deliver them to their home country, by plane or train, they are merely facilitators.

“They are trying their level best to negotiate with the government to try and facilitate their voluntary return but of cause it takes finance, logistical assistance and government doesn’t seem interested in doing so.”

He adds that foreigners needed protection and if government was not going to come to their aid with supportive statements by the Minister of Home Affairs and other ministers, they were in big trouble.

“Without government protection, these are a vulnerable minority especially asylum seekers. And we will hate for the world to see SA as a bastion of xenophobia. This means that we will receive far less foreign investment, and fewer foreign as a destination for scarce skills and entrepreneurship and I think this is devastating in the long run for the economy,” he said.

Another immigration lawyer Craig Smith supported the sit-in. He said in this case, the agency did have an obligation to assist with solutions and resettlement.

“They sit with the difficulty that is an exceptional situation as opposed to one of the more applications that are simply granted as a course. So, they, in turn, have to find feeding countries in a place of safety.”

He said the Department of Home Affairs and the agency had failed the protesters and must make good in correcting the wrongs of the past by banning xenophobia as hate speech.

Smith suggested a task team be established: “Set up some sort of task team to ensure that these people who are sitting in no man's land are suitably vetted and adjudicated.”

Meanwhile, the hundreds of foreign nationals said that they would not move from the UN office until the agency found a solution.

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