South Africa: UNHCR condemns xenophobic violence in Western Cape

Briefing Notes, 20 November 2009

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Andrej Mahecic to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 20 November 2009, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

UNHCR condemns the latest xenophobic attacks that have driven some 3,000 foreigners, including refugees and asylum-seekers from Zimbabwe, from their shacks in De Dooms, a grapelands farming community with a population of around 13,000 South Africans, 140 kms northeast of Cape Town.

We have moved quickly to help the displaced. They are now awaiting the outcome of negotiations with local farmers who attacked their homes on Tuesday, accusing them of stealing their jobs by accepting cheaper wages in vineyards. Documented refugees and asylum-seekers have the legal right to work in South Africa, but tensions often erupt over competition for jobs.

The evicted foreigners are now staying in a sports field and a community centre in De Doorns, sleeping under three communal tents supplied by the government. Each tent is sheltering some 1,000 people. These are mostly single men, but there are also some families. To ensure privacy for the families, we have donated smaller family tents, which were dispatched from our emergency stockpile in Durban and are expected to arrive in De Doorns this morning.

UNHCR welcomes the rapid humanitarian response of the local authorities and the fact that water, portable toilets and a mobile health clinic were provided within hours. In addition, the South African Red Cross has also been feeding the evicted with two hot meals a day.

This is the first large-scale xenophobic attack affecting refugees and asylum-seekers in South Africa since a country-wide violence in May, 2008.

UNHCR condemns this most recent violence and is sending two staff members from our Pretoria office at the request of the local authorities to work with the South African Human Rights Committee and all concerned parties to help bring the situation in De Dooms back to normal and make it safe for foreigners to return there.

At the end of 2008, there were an estimated 110,000 Zimbabwean asylum-seekers in South Africa.

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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

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.
Juanes - No one chooses to be a refugeePlay video

Juanes - 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 supporter Juanes and a host of other celebrities echo the same strong message: No one chooses to be a refugee.
Yao Chen - No one chooses to be a refugeePlay video

Yao Chen - 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. Yao Chen UNHCR Honorary Patron for China and a host of other celebrities echo the same strong message: No one chooses to be a refugee.