Refugees in South Africa: Living in Fear, Grateful for Help


After seeing reports in the US media of xenophobic violence in South Africa prior to my departure for Cape Town, I was originally concerned about my safety. However, as I soon discovered, xenophobia in South Africa means only a dislike of other black Africans, not white legal interns from America. Instead, the violence was directed at people from other African nations, primarily the DRC, Somalia, and Zimbabwe, who fled to South Africa to escape violence and/or poor economic situations in their home countries.

Because of this violence, approximately 20,000 refugees or asylum seekers who had already fled from their home countries to live in South Africa had to pack up and flee again, although this time to “safety sites” around Cape Town, where I was interning at the South African Human Rights Commission. Some fled to churches, mosques, or community halls, but most were housed in refugee camps. These camps were often located directly on the beach in the middle of the Cape Town winter, and the government erected flimsy marquee tents that provided little insulation against the wind, rain, and cold.

It is important to note that the vast majority of people who fled to these camps had real lives before the violence broke out. Though they had fled their home countries, they had established new lives for themselves in South Africa. Many had jobs, communities, where their kids attended school, and even some money. In the camps, however, there was little transport to the city, over 45 minutes away, and kids still were not attending school when I left. Not to mention that frequently, homes and businesses were commandeered by others in the township, leaving many families homeless.

In addition to facing xenophobia in the townships, refugees also encountered xenophobia in the government, particularly the entity responsible for providing documents to those seeking asylum and refugee status in South Africa, the Department of Home Affairs (DHA). The most visible of the many problems facing DHA is the queue in which individuals submit their new asylum applications. Last November, a 23 year old from Zimbabwe, Adonis Musati, actually died while waiting in this queue. This is not because he was beaten or stabbed, though that is not uncommon; rather, it is because he had to wait in the queue without food for weeks. Not hours, not days, but weeks.

The process for seeking asylum changes, but what remains the same is that these individuals have their rights to security and well-being violated simply by seeking to escape the situations from which they fled in a legal manner. It is clear that if DHA viewed these individuals as human beings, they would never be treated in this manner. I know this not from some distant observation, but because of long conversations with DHA officials, who casually distinguish these individuals from those who deserve appropriate treatment.

Besides writing reports about the above situations, I also spoke directly with the individuals about the problems they faced, and when I could, took specific action to help immediately. I received phone calls from refugees who were refused transportation to the camp by the police, though a pregnant woman accompanied them. I was called when rubber bullets were shot at camp residents, and refugees called when food did not arrive or when there was fighting among the groups in the camp. It made for an unbelievable summer, full of sights no one should have to see, much less experience.

Though working in this environment was heartbreaking, it was incredible to see my work have an actual impact on individual lives, which I saw with some frequency. For instance, a guy at the market practically gave me a window hanging because he recognized me as the one who had helped him get the asylum papers he needed from Home Affairs to be able to sell his work, the mother of a three year old Zimbabwean with cerebral palsy called to tell me how thankful she was that I got her daughter an appointment at and transportation to the Cerebral Palsy Clinic, and Papi, a 26 year old man from the DRC, cried when I told him I was leaving the country and would no longer be able to answer his (frequent) calls for help. These moments gave me the energy to continue working in the face of a largely unconcerned and apathetic government. However, I cannot help but wonder where the 4,000+ people remaining in the camps and the millions of undocumented foreign nationals find the strength and resilience to wake up each day, not knowing when or if these situations will ever improve.

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