As a sit-in protest outside the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) offices in Pretoria enters its third week, refugees remain resilient in their plea to be transferred to another country.
Tents and makeshift shelters line the sidewalks outside of the UNCHR offices in Brooklyn, with hundreds of people sitting around, waiting for answers.
Drums of water are used for cooking, drinking and washing. Burnt out fires, used for cooking are dotted all over the makeshift camp. Clothing and blankets line the walls, while rubbish has started piling up at one end of the street.
A lack of sanitation has also led to an open plot of land being littered with faeces.
Recent rains and the scorching heat remain another challenge faced by the refugees.
The area has been equated to a refugee camp. However, refugees are free to leave at any time, but refuse to do so, until their pleas are heard and solutions are found.
Democratic Republic of Congo national Aline Bukuru has been a refugee in South Africa for the past 12 years. She told News24 that refugees from several African countries had decided to camp outside the UNHCR offices due to ongoing xenophobia and the threat thereof in South Africa.
Congolese, Somalians, Burundians, Rwandans and Tanzanians make up some of the nationalities camping on the side of the street in an upmarket suburb of Pretoria.
At least 1 000 refugees have also protested outside of the UNHCR offices in Cape Town, News24 previously reported.
All the refugees share a common fear – that they are being targeted and will become victims of xenophobia.
“We decided to come and camp outside here, due to the ongoing xenophobia which is happening in this country for 11 years. No solution has been taken, refugees keep dying, there is no solutions, no justice here,” Bukuru told News24.
“There are rumours that the local people don’t want refugees in this country. The local people are telling refugees and foreigners to leave, saying if they don’t leave, they will do genocide.”
These fears were sparked by widespread acts of public violence in Gauteng in September, which left 12 people dead – two of whom were foreign nationals – News24 previously reported.
“Refugees are the most vulnerable, they have nowhere to go, because in their countries there is still war, persecution and the situation in their country is still the same, so they can’t go.”
The refugees protesting outside of the UNCHR offices also hope that they will be assisted in moving to another country.
“We want to relocate outside of the country, which seems is not easy. But we are trying to ask them to appeal to any country that can accommodate refugees,” Bukuru said.
UNHCR engaging with refugees
The UNHCR’s South African spokesperson, Helene Caux, said they had consistently engaged with the refugees since the beginning of the protests, having regular meetings to hear their demands and try to find a way forward.
“It is our hope and expectation that the protesters will continue to act peacefully and engage in a process of dialogue with all relevant stakeholders to find solutions,” Caux said.
She said refugees had raised concerns regarding the time frames of the asylum process, and growing problems in accessing and renewing documentation that impacts their access to services and livelihood opportunities.
“Another of the major concerns expressed by the refugees is their personal safety, in the wake of the recent violence against foreigners. They say they do not feel safe in South Africa and ask to be resettled to third countries.”
The UNHCR said that process of resettlement was complex and that this had been communicated to the refugees camping outside their offices.
“We understand that, for many refugees, this is what they hope and expect. UNHCR has been consistently providing accurate information to refugees about the limitations of the possibilities for resettlement,” Caux said.
She explained that resettlement was largely dependent on international cooperation and on places offered by resettlement countries themselves. Resettlement was also reserved for a small number of refugees, undertaken on a case-by-case basis.
“To put things in context, there are around 23 million refugees and asylum seekers worldwide, and this figure is increasing every year.
“Only up to 1% of the refugee population worldwide will have a chance of being resettled every year. For South Africa, in 2019, we have a quota of 700 places which are already mostly filled. Resettlement is not a realistic option for most refugees here in South Africa.”
The UNHCR is working closely with government authorities, including the Department of Home Affairs, the municipalities of Tshwane and Cape Town, the South Africa Police Service, civil society and other stakeholders to strengthen protection responses and services, Caux said.
Plans were also afoot to develop social cohesion programmes to support the inclusion of refugees into South African society.