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UNHCR joins task force aimed at easing tension between Somalis and locals in South African township


UNHCR joins task force aimed at easing tension between Somalis and locals in South African township

Attacks on Somali traders mid-February in a South African township have focused attention on the problems of xenophobia and tension between the Somalis and locals. UNHCR has joined a task force aimed at finding ways to ease the situation and end violence.
15 March 2007
A Somali refugee makes a living by selling sundries from this small shop in South Africa. UNHCR, the government and others are worried about rising attacks on Somali traders.

PORT ELIZABETH, South Africa, March 15 (UNHCR) - Hamud Hire arrived in South Africa in 1994, full of optimism and expectation after a hard life as the member of a minority tribe in Somalia. His parents were both killed during the country's long civil war and he decided to seek a new future somewhere safer.

"I couldn't have arrived at a better time," he said, noting that 1994 was the year that South Africa held its first democratic elections after decades of apartheid rule and there was an atmosphere of forgiveness and reconciliation.

And life was good for Hire - until last month, when he encountered the kind of hatred that he thought he had left behind forever in Somalia. He had saved enough money over the years to open a small grocery store in Motherwell, one of Port Elizabeth's largest townships, and was looking forward to rosy business.

But in mid-February, the lives of Hire and scores of other Somalis in Motherwell changed dramatically during the latest outbreak of violence against Somali refugees. Those affected have moved out of Motherwell, hoping that refugee community leaders, government officials, UNHCR representatives, civic leaders and other interested parties can successfully tackle the rising problem of xenophobia before they return.

Hire said that on the fateful day last month, he was woken by a chanting mob making its way up his street. "A crowd was rushing up and down the street, shouting and calling, hamba kwerekwere, phuma kwerekwere [foreigner leave, foreigner get out]," he recalled.

"I stuffed that evening's takings into my pockets and as I was about to sneak out through the back, they had started battering down the door to the shop entrance. They took everything and I just ran," Hire added. By the end of the day, more than 20 Somali-owned shops had been looted and damaged.

Xenophobic attacks on Somali traders have been rising in recent years, but last month's incident - apparently sparked after a 15-year-old local boy was shot and wounded when the robbery of a Somali trader went sour - has caused particular concern because of the exodus of Somalis that followed.

Many Somali traders have closed their shops and moved with their families - some 300 people in total - to a community hall in another area of Port Elizabeth. The city's Disaster Management Centre, the South African Red Cross and other agencies have provided the displaced Somalis with bedding, food parcels and non-food items.

The central government quickly condemned the violence, while the Somalis have been asked to return to Motherwell township. But they said they were reluctant to go back until they felt sure that their safety was guaranteed.

Some also said they did not have the resources to reopen their businesses. "Who will compensate me for the loss of about 55,000 rands (US$6,750) worth of stock? How will I begin my life again," asked Hire.

The South African cabinet, in its February 22 statement, said "Somalis and other immigrants must be assured of the government's rejection of violence against them and our commitment to ensure that lasting solutions are found to the causes of the conflict and tensions."

The cabinet added that it "fully supports the initiatives of provincial and local leaders to prevent any further violence. Our police services will and must deal with anyone found to be inciting violence and attacks."

The Motherwell police have launched an operation to recover and return goods looted during the rampage. To date, a few cold storage facilities have been recovered. Meanwhile, township leaders in Motherwell have hosted community meetings and have gone on radio to denounce the violence.

In addition, UNHCR has joined a special task force set up on March 8 to address the problems. Other members include municipal officials, the Department of Home Affairs, the police, Motherwell community leaders, the South African Human Rights Commission and other interested parties

But Somali community leaders said they were angry and frustrated and would air their grievances at a meeting due to be convened on Friday to put together a plan of action for the task force.

"Their despair is understandable," said Monique Ekoko, a UNHCR protection officer. "We are, however, treating this matter with the seriousness it deserves. We appreciate government efforts to resolve the matter peacefully. In terms of long term solutions, we are looking into individuals and their needs for resettlement where possible."

"UNHCR is an integral part of the Motherwell task force, which will meet regularly to plan long-term intervention strategies with other stakeholders. We will do all in our power to make a productive contribution to the resolution of this issue for as long as it takes. That is our mandate, our responsibility and our promise," she added.

By Pumla Rulashe in Port Elizabeth, South Africa