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Amid rising xenophobic attacks in South Africa, UNHCR ramps up aid for refugees, calls for urgent action

Briefing notes

Amid rising xenophobic attacks in South Africa, UNHCR ramps up aid for refugees, calls for urgent action

20 September 2019
South Africa
A mother and child displaced by xenophobic violence shelter at a makeshift camp at a police station in Johannesburg, South Africa, June 2008.

UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency is deeply concerned about recurring violence against foreign nationals, including refugees and asylum-seekers, in South Africa, most recently taking place in Katlehong near Johannesburg in Gauteng Province.

At least twelve people, including both foreign nationals and South Africans, have reportedly been killed since the onset of the recent violence.

At least 1,500 foreign nationals, predominantly migrants but also refugees and asylum-seekers, have been forced to flee their homes.

Our staff are receiving a significant increase in calls to our telephone hotlines in recent weeks, with people reporting that their homes and businesses have been looted, buildings and property have been set on fire, increased gang activity on the streets and rising incidents of sexual and gender-based violence. Many refugees are now too afraid to go to work or carry out their day-to-day trade, despite having no alternative sources of income. 

Refugees and asylum-seekers are feeling particularly vulnerable, as their situation is often worsened by a lack of documentation, leaving them struggling to access health care, education and other public services.

Some 800 people, mostly from Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe, have sought safety in community halls in Katlehong. Many wish to return home, saying they no longer feel safe in South Africa. Reports indicate that 73 Malawians, 138 Mozambicans, 314 Nigerians and 72 Zimbabweans have decided to return already.

We are strengthening our response and operational presence in South Africa to ensure refugees’ safety, in close coordination with the Government of South Africa, UN agencies through the UN Protection Working Group chaired by UNHCR, and NGO and civil society partners. We are deploying additional staff and resources, including relief items, emergency shelter, psycho-social care, legal assistance and support with recovery of lost livelihoods. Community dialogues are being established with host communities to strengthen social cohesion. UNHCR experts on child protection and sexual and gender-based violence will arrive in the coming days.

UNHCR is calling on State authorities to take every possible measure to ensure people’s safety and welfare. No effort should be spared to quell the violence and enforce rule of law. Those responsible for committing criminal acts must be held to account in court.

South Africa’s recently adopted National Action Plan to Combat Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance must now be swiftly implemented and sufficiently resourced to avert further damage and destruction. Those with a voice in the public domain have a responsibility to ensure their language does not further inflame the situation, and that foreigners do not become scapegoats for complex socio-economic challenges.


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