Urban refugees struggle to make ends meet in South Africa

Telling the Human Story, 7 December 2009

© UNHCR/Zalmaï
Telmore Mutinhima, one of thousands of Zimbabwean asylum-seekers in South Africa, leaves the dilapidated tyre warehouse he calls home and sets out to look for work – a daily ritual.

PRETORIA, South Africa, December 7 (UNHCR) Telmore Mutinhima struggles to sleep on his grimy, threadbare mattress on an early South African morning. It's his most treasured possession it's his only possession.

There's the odour of unwashed bodies in the abandoned warehouse where he lies in a cubicle amid other fitful sleepers. He contemplates the day ahead. Soon, the Zimbabwean asylum-seeker knows, he will have to force himself to get up and search for work. "I'll take anything," he says. "Beggars can't be choosers."

Barely a year ago, his life looked positively rosy a job on a construction site, a rented room in Pretoria's Atteridgeville Township, and enough money to enjoy three square meals a day and send a little bit back to his family in Zimbabwe. It all disappeared during a wave of xenophobia in May 2008.

Telmore, his blind compatriot Phillip Moyo, and tens of thousands of others were forced to flee for their lives from townships across the country as simmering tensions between South Africans and foreigners mainly Africans, and including refugees and asylum-seekers erupted in violence, leaving several dozen dead.

The situation has calmed down substantially since then, but life has changed completely for many of those forced to flee their homes, including Telmore, who was evicted from Atteridgeville by a mob intent on ridding the community of foreigners alleged to be benefitting from social assistance programmes.

"I made it out of there just in time," recalls Telmore, who has never gone back to try and reclaim his property. "What's the point? Everything has long since disappeared," he says resignedly. He found the precious mattress on one of Pretoria's numerous garbage dumps.

But while Telmore is destitute and unemployed, at least he is among people who understand and share his suffering. About 200 Zimbabwean refugees, asylum-seekers and others live in the decrepit warehouse, getting water from a nearby stream for washing and cooking unlike many other countries in the continent, South Africa has no refugee camps.

Telmore also has something to keep him occupied: feeding and generally looking after Phillip in the big city. "Who else will look after him,?" he asks, shrugging his shoulders. "When we left our country for South Africa we expected protection and the opportunity to better our lives, but maybe we were better off in Zimbabwe. At least we would have been struggling amongst our own."

It was the very success of foreigners in finding work and setting up small businesses both permitted under South African law that contributed to local resentment and xenophobia. It got worse when the global downturn reached South Africa. Many employees sided with locals who claimed that the expats were stealing their jobs and livelihoods and laid off foreigners.

Telmore said he was let go because employers claimed they needed South African identity documents. "Many of us were laid off . . . because our asylum permits were considered false and invalid," he said, adding: "They didn't say this when they were paying us peanuts for wages."

Ignorance about the rights of refugees and asylum-seekers is a major issue, explains Monique Ekoko, UNHCR's Pretoria-based senior regional protection officer. "Even where refugees are in possession of officially issued documentation, the lack of recognition of these documents by institutions and employers is a major hindrance to the realization of their socio-economic rights," she says, while noting: "This is where the major challenge to local integration begins for refugees."

It's not a new problem: UNHCR research conducted over the past three years in Johannesburg, Pretoria, Cape Town, Durban and Port Elizabeth shows that many refugees were unable to find employment due to non-recognition of their documents. But the situation has got worse amid the economic crisis.

"Every day is an uphill struggle," says Telmore, who has resorted to scavenging through dustbins for scraps of food. "My last meal was two nights ago. I have to make do with whatever I can find," he adds.

Without a job, asylum-seekers also find it difficult to get access to education and medical care. Meanwhile, the frequency with which asylum-seeker permits must be renewed means high levels of absenteeism from work. "That is enough to make any employer dismiss a refugee employee. It's a Catch-22 situation," notes UNHCR's Ekoko.

UNHCR is extremely concerned about the outlook for urban refugees in South Africa. 'It is a challenge to come up with practical and sustainable solutions for refugees living in this environment," says Ekoko. "While we understand that South Africa itself has high unemployment amongst its own citizens and that life is equally difficult for them, the country still has an obligation to refugees."

By Pumla Rulashe in Pretoria, South Africa




UNHCR country pages

Urban Refugees

More than half the refugees UNHCR serves now live in urban areas

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

Surviving in the City: Pretoria, South AfricaPlay video

Surviving in the City: Pretoria, South Africa

Living in Pretoria as a refugee or asylum-seeker is challenging. Most either live rough on the streets or in cramped apartments in townships. There are also tensions with locals because of the perception that foreigners get a better deal than South African citizens.
Top business partners renew supportPlay video

Top business partners renew support

Executives from Manpower, Young & Rubicam, PricewaterhouseCoopers and Microsoft visit UNHCR operations in South Africa, Mozambique and Namibia.
Zimbabweans in South AfricaPlay video

Zimbabweans in South Africa

While Zimbabwe's main political rivals have agreed to hold power-sharing talks, there are continued reports of instability and violence in the country. The flow of Zimbabweans seeking asylum in neigbouring South Africa is growing, rather than ebbing. The UN refugee agency reports that there are more and more women and children joining the exodus.