Mon, Feb 09, 2009 - Page 6 News List

Migrants live in fear in South Africa


Jeanine fled her home in her adopted country of South Africa in May, when anti-immigrant attacks erupted across the nation, to live under a tent of plastic bags and blankets.

“They treat us like animals in South Africa,” the 32-year-old said, in a makeshift camp outside Pretoria.

About 600 other migrants are living here, even though authorities officially closed down the camp, taking away tents, toilets and electricity that the displaced people had relied on.

Jeanine and the others here fled their homes when anti-immigrant attacks broke out across South Africa for the first time since the end of apartheid in 1994.

In a nation where 43 percent of the population lives in poverty, poor South Africans struggling to survive turned against their foreign neighbors, accusing them of stealing jobs and committing crimes.

More than 60 people were killed and tens of thousands fled their homes, mainly in Johannesburg, Pretoria and Cape Town.

Researchers at the University of the Witwatersrand estimate that up to 40,000 people were living in camps opened after the violence. Some 100,000 were seeking refuge elsewhere, or in neighboring countries.

“We don’t know what happened to a lot of people who were displaced,” said Loren Landau, director of Forced Migration Studies at the university.

“Our impression is that many of them went to communities near where they were before but not in those communities. A significant number moved for example from the townships into the city centers where there is a more migrant area where they would be protected to each others,” he said.

Authorities in Gauteng, South Africa’s richest province that includes Johannesburg and Pretoria, insist that all the victims have been reintegrated into the communities.

“All of them have come back to their communities because no one is in shelters now,” provincial spokesman Simon Zwane said.

“The situation is normal,” he said. “There have been no attacks in Gauteng.”

Zwane said the provincial government has reached out to communities to re-establish trust on the streets.

“Our response was to send teams to those communities to talk to the people ... to give a message of tolerance,” he said.

But migrants in the ramshackle camps say that tensions remain.

“If we go back to our communities, we’ll be targeted. People are being killed, they are scared,” said Abdulahie Abass, leader of the Somali community in the camps, near a small open-air grocery store.

People here point to articles published in the tabloid Daily Sun late last month that reported attacks in suburban Pretoria and said that South Africans had distributed written warnings telling Zimbabweans and Somalis to leave.

Congolese, Rwandans and Ethiopians at the camp told similar stories of daily intimidation.

“The South Africans who pass by here say, ‘Go back to your country,’” one migrant said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“They say, ‘After the elections, when [African National Congress president Jacob] Zuma is president, we’ll chase you from our country,’” another said.

After the camps were closed, Amnesty International warned that violence could follow migrants back into their neighborhoods, and decried the lack of planning on how to integrate them into the communities.

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