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Squatter camp in South Africa underscores need for urban refugee policy review

News Stories, 23 February 2006

Asylum seekers queue through the night outside the Department of Home Affairs in Tshwane, South Africa, desperate to get a permit legitimising their stay.

TSHWANE, South Africa, Feb 23 (UNHCR) It is Friday night and residents of Tshwane, formerly Pretoria, are preparing for a big night out. Not far from the growing swell of party-goers, a group of underdressed men, women and children huddle together against the biting cold as the overcast sky threatens to unleash another downpour. Weary and exhausted, they ready their umbrellas and press against the green fence as they wait outside the offices of the Department of Home Affairs (DHA).

The group of some 300 asylum seekers from Zimbabwe, Malawi and Tanzania has gathered here to get vital documentation legitimising their stay in the country. Many of the Zimbabweans were kicked out of their homes in Zimbabwe under Operation Murambatsvina, a government clean-up campaign of alleged unauthorized housing that has affected an estimated 700,000 people throughout the country. Some among the group have no documents or permits, others simply have nowhere to go.

They are determined to stay put outside the DHA, awaiting their turn with an immigration officer. Any premature move will mean losing their spot in the queue, which snakes around the government compound. Queen-sized beds are propped against the fence, and the asylum seekers ignore the curious stares of night revellers as they do their laundry or prepare their dinner. A mini tuck shop makes a brisk trade supplying them with basic domestic items.

Litricia Sibanda is a 30-year-old asylum seeker from Bulawayo, a city in southern Zimbabwe bordering South Africa. "Our properties and livelihoods have been destroyed so we found ourselves left with no options but to seek protection and to make a living elsewhere," she says in frustration.

She and 13 women and children have travelled about 60 km from Johannesburg to the DHA, where they intend to wait all weekend if necessary. "We have no choice," says Sibanda. "The police are always after us. When they meet us in the street, they demand to see permits which we don't have. This is an automatic invitation to be taken to the Lindela Repatriation Centre for deportation. That is why we choose to stay out here until we get our papers."

Working with the DHA, UNHCR's deputy representative in South Africa, Abel Mbilinyi, brought a team to mediate. They persuaded the asylum seekers that squatting was unlawful, and tried to facilitate their access to legal documentation. The team also sought to refer people with specific needs to implementing partners so they could gain practical help.

Nonetheless, the mere presence of the de facto squatter camp points to a bigger problem: inadequate policies to address the needs of refugees and asylum seekers in urban areas.

"UNHCR's expectations for asylum seekers and refugees in structured urban environments have always been for governments to play a significant role in protecting them and searching for durable solutions to solve their problems. The 1997 policy falls critically short of addressing some of the fundamental challenges found in these areas," says Ebrima Camara, the agency's Regional Representative for Southern Africa, referring to UNHCR's 1997 "Policy on Asylum Seekers and Refugees in Urban Areas".

To address these concerns, the UN refugee agency recently held a two-day workshop to review this policy. Delegates from Uganda, Zambia, Benin, Gabon, Sudan, Kenya and South Africa met to help give UNHCR a better perspective on issues affecting refugees and asylum seekers in structured urban areas, and to devise effective strategies that are achievable and results oriented.

Camara acknowledges that South Africa has shown its goodwill towards the institution of asylum by enacting all legislation relating to refugee protection and creating institutions and laws to guarantee the protection of refugees and asylum seekers, as well as granting access to employment. However, the country has not effectively or adequately addressed the problem of access to services such as social grants, medical facilities and treatment for HIV/AIDS, among other things.

Without legal documentation, asylum seekers often find themselves at the mercy of zealous law enforcement officials and corrupt civil servants. Deprived of accommodation and other fundamental rights without the required documents, they remain unprotected and unassisted.

Service delivery is further complicated by systemic delays caused by mixed populations of illegal immigrants, economic migrants and victims of human trafficking, all of them competing for the same resources in urban areas.

To combat these problems, UNHCR's Camara encouraged the workshop to look into innovative methods to address refugees' needs through participatory assessments, greater communication between UNHCR, governments, non-governmental organisations as well as asylum-seeker and refugee communities.

"These methods must be considered indispensable if we are to do more for asylum seekers and refugees," he says.

When the "Policy on Asylum Seekers and Refugees in Urban Areas" is revised later this year, it is expected to better equip and enable UNHCR, its government counterparts and NGO service providers to get to the heart of problems facing asylum seekers and refugees in urban areas. In the South African context, this will hopefully mean that Sibanda and her compatriots will never have to expose themselves to the elements in the attempt to exercise their fundamental human rights as asylum seekers and refugees.

South Africa hosts approximately 29,000 recognised refugees and 110,000 asylum seekers whose asylum applications are not finalized.

By Pumla Rulashe
UNHCR South Africa




UNHCR country pages

South Africa's Invisible People

In March 2011, UNHCR initiated a project with the South African non-governmental organization, Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR), to tackle the issue of statelessness. The specific goals of the project were to provide direct legal services to stateless people and those at risk of statelessness; to engage government on the need for legal reform to prevent and reduce statelessness; to raise awareness about stateless people and their rights; and to advocate for the ratification of the 1954 and 1961 UN conventions on statelessness.

LHR had conceived the project a year earlier after noticing that large numbers of Zimbabwean-born asylum-seekers were telling its staff that they faced problems getting jobs, studying or setting up businesses - all allowed under South African law. They told LHR that when they applied for Zimbabwean passports, necessary to access these rights, they were informed by consular officials that they were no longer recognized as Zimbabwean citizens. This effectively made them stateless.

Since the project's inception, LHR has reached more than 2,000 people who are stateless or at risk of statelessness. These people came from more than 20 different countries. It has identified numerous categories of concern in South Africa, both migrants and those born in the country.

The following photo set portrays some of the people who have been, or are being, helped by the project. The portraits were taken by photographer Daniel Boshoff. Some of the subjects asked that their names be changed.

South Africa's Invisible People

South Africa: Searching for Coexistence

South Africa is one of the few countries in Africa where registered refugees and asylum-seekers can legally move about freely, access social services and compete with locals for jobs.

But while these right are enshrined in law, in practice they are sometimes ignored and refugees and asylum-seekers often find themselves turned away by employers or competing with the poorest locals for the worst jobs - especially in the last few years, as millions have fled political and economic woes in countries like Zimbabwe. The global economic downturn has not helped.

Over the last decade, when times turned tough, refugees in towns and cities sometimes became the target of the frustrations of locals. In May 2008, xenophobic violence erupted in Johannesburg and quickly spread to other parts of the country, killing more than 60 people and displacing about 100,000 others.

In Atteridgeville, on the edge of the capital city of Pretoria - and site of some of the worst violence - South African and Somali traders, assisted by UNHCR, negotiated a detailed agreement to settle the original trade dispute that led to the torching of Somali-run shops. The UN refugee agency also supports work by the Nelson Mandela Foundation to counter xenophobia.

South Africa: Searching for Coexistence

Refuge on the Sixth Floor: Urban Refugees in Jordan

For most people, the iconic image of refugees is thousands of people living in row upon row of tents in a sprawling emergency camp in the countryside. But the reality today is that more than half of the world's refugees live in urban areas, where they face many challenges and where it is more difficult to provide them with protection and assistance.

That's the case in Jordan, where tens of thousands of Syrian refugees have bypassed camps near the border and sought shelter in towns and cities like Amman, the national capital. The UN refugee agency is providing cash support to some 11,000 Syrian refugee families in Jordan's urban areas, but a funding shortage is preventing UNHCR from providing any more.

In this photo set, photographer Brian Sokol, follows eight families living on the sixth floor of a nondescript building in Amman. All fled Syria in search of safety and some need medical care. The images were taken as winter was descending on the city. They show what it is like to face the cold and poverty, and they also depict the isolation of being a stranger in a strange land.

The identities of the refugees are masked at their request and their names have been changed. The longer the Syria crisis remains unresolved, the longer their ordeal - and that of more than 1 million other refugees in Jordan and other countries in the region.

Refuge on the Sixth Floor: Urban Refugees in Jordan

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Jordan: Syrian Refugees' Housing Crisis

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Syrian Refugees: An Urban Refugee in Turkey

There are more than 650,000 Syrian refugees in Turkey. Some 200,000 are housed in refugee camps along the border, but more than 460,000 live more precarious lives as urban refugees. One of them, Abdul Rahman, lives in the southern city of Urfa. It's been tough but the young man keeps his dreams alive.
Jordan: Za'atari Camp One Year AnniversaryPlay video

Jordan: Za'atari Camp One Year Anniversary

One Year On: Jordan's Za'atari Refugee Camp mushrooms into major urban centre. The sprawling Za'atari Refugee Camp is now Jordan's 4th largest city