• Text size Normal size text | Increase text size by 10% | Increase text size by 20% | Increase text size by 30%

Displaced foreigners prepare to vacate temporary shelters as deadline looms

News Stories, 14 August 2008

© UNHCR/P.Rulashe
Foreigners displaced in recent xenophobic violence in Gauteng province, South Africa, are expected to leave their temporary shelters by August 15, 2008.

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa, August 14 (UNHCR) As the deadline draws closer for the closure of temporary shelters set up by the Gauteng provincial government in South Africa for foreigners displaced in recent xenophobic attacks, Gloria*, a Zimbabwean asylum seeker, is still unsure where she will go. The Rifle Range temporary shelter in Johannesburg, which has been her home for the last two months, is expected to be shut down tomorrow.

Authorities say all six temporary shelters housing some 6,000 migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in Gauteng province will be dismantled on August 15.

"I have sleepless nights thinking about this," Gloria confides. "I just don't know what I'll do come Friday." Spare of frame and fragile looking, she has been referred to a local hospital to seek medical attention for depression.

Her current state is a far cry from her life of affluence before Zimbabwe's political and economic turmoil. Her husband's two university degrees and well-paying job kept her and their two sons accustomed to a comfortable lifestyle. But he was also an activist for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), and was murdered in 2005.

Since then, Gloria has had to fend for her young family and HIV-positive mother. They fled to South Africa and initially stayed at a women's shelter in Johannesburg. But they overstayed their welcome and Gloria was driven into the arms of an abusive partner. Her two-year-old daughter is what's left of the liaison, which she now puts down to an attempt at finding solace and security as a respite to the daily slog of ensuring a roof over her family's head and food on their table.

"Having to start (life) over in a new country, with no place to stay, moving to a shelter when I was the madam of my own house back in Zimbabwe, is like losing everything including my identity," she says. "Now I'm just a number on an asylum-seeker permit."

The UN refugee agency in Pretoria is supporting all asylum and undocumented Zimbabweans like Gloria who would like to reintegrate into local communities through an assistance programme implemented by its partner, the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS). The non-governmental organization is conducting individual and family needs assessment exercises aimed at providing limited financial support to refugees and asylum seekers. Gloria has been granted 1,500 Rand (over US$192) under this programme.

"The assistance is for a period of two months, after which we expect people to be on the road to re-establishing themselves and their livelihoods," explains Irfan Adil, UNHCR's Associate Programme Officer. "However, the most vulnerable can still approach our partners for a re-assessment of their situations and based on its outcome, may be eligible for further assistance."

Gloria understands that she and her family cannot remain permanently at the temporary shelter. The provincial authorities made it clear right at the outset that these shelters were temporary.

"UNHCR provided us shelter and the government has fed us for two months. It is time to move on but I just need a little more time get my plan in place," she says desperately.

With no options left, Gloria intends to visit her local pastor to ask him to place her sons in the church's boys' home just until she can find a place for all of them to be together again.

"That will be very difficult as my eldest son, who turns 13 this year, blames me for our predicament," she remarks. "He doesn't realize that the direction our lives have taken is the result of the political situation back home."

Like many Zimbabweans abroad, Gloria is hopeful that the power-sharing talks currently underway between ZANU-PF (Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front) and the opposition MDC in Zimbabwe will bring peace and stability to her homeland. "I miss home terribly," she says, "we all do."

Even when she and her family eventually return to Zimbabwe, Gloria knows that life will be difficult as she will have to start from scratch. These are the thoughts that help her through some of her most difficult moments, but right now she is forced to put aside any dreams of returning home tomorrow is only a few hours away.

* Name changed for protection reasons

By Pumla Rulashe in Johannesburg, 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

2007 Nansen Refugee Award

The UN refugee agency's Nansen Awards Committee has named Dr. Katrine Camilleri, a 37-year-old lawyer with the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) in Malta, as the winner of the 2007 Nansen Refugee Award. The Committee was impressed by the political and civic courage she has shown in dealing with the refugee situation in Malta.

Dr. Camilleri first became aware of the plight of refugees as a 16-year-old girl when a priest visited her school to talk about his work. After graduating from the University of Malta in 1994, she began working in a small law firm where she came into contact with refugees. As Dr. Camilleri's interest grew in this humanitarian field, she started to work with the JRS office in Malta in 1997.

Over the last year, JRS and Dr. Camilleri have faced a series of attacks. Nine vehicles belonging to the Jesuits were burned in two separate attacks. And this April, arsonists set fire to both Dr. Camilleri's car and her front door, terrifying her family. The perpetrators were never caught but the attacks shocked Maltese society and drew condemnation from the Government of Malta. Dr. Camilleri continues to lead the JRS Malta legal team as Assistant Director.

2007 Nansen Refugee Award

Lebanon: Syrian Refugees Leaving for Germany 
Play video

Lebanon: Syrian Refugees Leaving for Germany

Ahmad is among a first group of 107 Syrian refugees offered temporary shelter by Germany under a special humanitarian programme. He and his family flew out from Lebanon today for Hanover. Ahmad welcomed the opportunity given by Germany.
Iraq: Temporary Shelter for Syria's Refugees 
Play video

Iraq: Temporary Shelter for Syria's Refugees

When the government of Northern Iraq opened its borders to Syria's refugees, thousands arrived. With Domiz camp already short of space, a temporary camp in Kawargost was created. There are now over 7000 people staying here...and more keep coming.
Khaled Hosseini - No one chooses to be a refugeePlay video

Khaled Hosseini - No one chooses to be a refugee

UNHCR's 2012 World Refugee Day global social advocacy campaign, "Dilemmas", aims to help fight intolerance and xenophobia against refugees. UNHCR Goodwill Envoy Khaled Hosseini and a host of other celebrities echo the same strong message: No one chooses to be a refugee.