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UNHCR distributes aid to South Africa's xenophobia victims


UNHCR distributes aid to South Africa's xenophobia victims

UNHCR distributes 2,000 blankets and 2,000 mats to victims of a wave of xenophobia in South Africa's Guateng province.
21 May 2008
Displaced foreigners offload UNHCR sleeping mats in Germiston.

GERMISTON, South Africa, May 21 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency on Wednesday provided 2,000 blankets and 2,000 mats to victims of a wave of xenophobia in South Africa's Gauteng province.

The distribution, aimed at meeting immediate humanitarian needs, was conducted in several police stations in the province in north-east South Africa. Attacks on foreigners since last weekend have left dozens dead and caused an estimated 13,000 people to flee their homes. Most are migrants from other nearby African countries, but there are also refugees and asylum seekers among the displaced.

"UNHCR is deeply concerned about the widespread xenophobic attacks targeting foreigners in Gauteng province in South Africa. Those affected include refugees and asylum seekers who fled to South Africa seeking protection from persecution in their own countries," said Sanda Kimbimbi, UNHCR's representative in South Africa.

Many of the displaced have sought protection from police stations, but are sleeping in the open. The government has opened so-called Joint Operations Centres in police stations and community centres to house them. These centres are coordinating aid delivery by humanitarian agencies and individuals sympathizing with the victims.

Some 2,800 people, including more than 100 children, had found shelter in one such centre - the community hall in the town of Germiston, located just east of the metropolis of Johannesburg. Some of the UNHCR blankets and mats were handed out here.

In the community hall on Wednesday, scores of people waited to be attended by medical staff in one corner, while new arrivals queued to be registered by the local municipal officials and receive the right to aid. In another part of the building, a breakfast of bread, jam, fruit and tea was being prepared.

Filizarda Mbanza, found sitting against a wall cradling her three-month-old baby, told UNHCR staff that she fled her shack on the outskirts of Germiston last Saturday when her neighbour shouted that a crowd whipped up by xenophobia was approaching.

"I was terrified! My husband was at work and I was alone with the baby. What was I to take from our shack? The warnings were drawing closer and I was in a panic. I had to get out there before my baby and I were attacked," Mbanza recalled.

Strapping the baby to her back, Mbanza followed other fleeing families to the nearest police station. The police took them to the Germiston Community Hall. "I don't even know how I arrived here. My mind was just in turmoil. My husband, was he still alive? My house, my goods.... I am just broken-hearted," the dazed woman said.

Walking through the poorly ventilated community hall, the UNHCR staff were struck by the stench of unwashed bodies and clothing. There are insufficient washing facilities and not enough toilets.

Children seemed oblivious to the gravity of the situation and played happily around the building, while their sombre-looking parents reflected on their radically changed situation over the past few days. Aid volunteers tried to appear cheerful in a bid to raise spirits.

Some people said they wanted to go back to their home countries, particularly those from Mozambique. But the Zimbabweans did not consider going home to a country facing major political and economic problems as an option.

"Until [Zimbabwean President] Robert Mugabe and [opposition leader] Morgan Tsvangirai can sit and talk together, we cannot go home! We ran away from harassment and beatings only to run straight into it here," one woman said, adding: "What must we do?"

The new residents of the community hall were looking forward to the distribution of aid, including blankets. UNHCR's implementing partner, the Jesuit Refugee Services (JRS), is taking care of the distribution of blankets and mattresses.

"We clearly need to bring more blankets," said a JRS staff member. "It's terribly cold. These blankets have come at the right time." Mbanza was fiercely guarding her blanket and mattress - priority has been given to women and children.

A policeman said it had been chaotic in the community hall when the first blankets were delivered. "We struggled to restore calm and have asked the coordinators working here to devise another method of distribution," he said.

By Pumla Rulashe in Germiston, South Africa