The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has said no further assistance would be channeled to a group of nine immigrant families, with their 23 children, who are now attempting to leave South Africa and resettle in Zimbabwe.
“We have previously helped those families, but we will not be doing it anymore. We have people who are more vulnerable that we have to assist in South Africa. We assist the refugee families, but not permanently,” the refugee agency’s spokesperson Tina Ghelli said this week.
“We have assisted those families many times. We have previously given them money to start-up businesses. We have paid rent for them for intervals like three or four months. We cannot do that forever. Refugees in South Africa have the right to work and fend for themselves and their families.”
She said the UN agency’s position was to foster integration of the foreign nationals into South African communities.
“They refuse to be integrated into the South African community. They do not want. They chose to camp out of our offices, some of them for about two years. We could not have the situation continue like that. We have given money to the immigrants who were in camps following the 2015 xenophobic violence. We have also provided money to start business for some of the immigrants.”
Ghelli said the migrants were now insisting that the UN agency organise a move to a third country simply because “they want to go to America”.
“There are three main countries where we resettle refugees. Those countries are the United States of America, Canada and Australia. Even if these families have acquired refugee status in South Africa, the criteria used in our resettlement to a third country are much stricter and they would not make it,” said Ghelli.
A Democratic Republic of Congo national, who only wished to be identified as Mafuta – for his security reasons – narrated how he and other immigrants from Burundi moved to UN’s Metro Park building in Pretoria central, after surviving two waves of xenophobic attacks, in 2008 and in 2015.
“The UN is misunderstanding this whole thing. We are not looking for money or to get handouts of free social services. We did not take a cent after the 2015 violence in Durban because the money had a condition that you have to go back into the South African community. That is unthinkable. We will be killed,” said Mafuta.
“The UN has chosen to look the other way, while the real threat exists for immigrants living in South Africa. I have stayed in South Africa since 2008. I was attacked in Pretoria west during the 2008 violence, I then moved to Durban. In 2015 I escaped the attacks. Our only hope was the UNHCR. The UN is your father if you are seeking asylum in another country.”
Relations between the UNHCR and the immigrants have collapsed, particularly after the building managers of the Metro Park centre approached the High Court in Pretoria in December, seeking a court order for an eviction of all the migrants camped outside their facility.
But Johannesburg-based human rights advocate Gabriel Shumba is concerned the police, in removing the immigrants from the UN premises, may have acted based on a misinterpretation of the High Court order.
“First off, the order does not authorise eviction, as Section 41 of the Immigration Act only applies to the arrest and detention without warrant of foreigners whose documents are reasonably suspected to be fraudulent, or those with no legal status at all. To have proceeded with an eviction when this order does not permit such is a blatantly high-handed action which also constitutes an abuse of the court process,” said Shumba.
“The UNHCR should be perceived as a protector of asylum seekers and refugees worldwide. To be seen as conspiring in the unwarranted eviction or deportation of refugees, which is in violation of the principle of non-refoulement, is not only unhelpful but also contrary to its mission.
“The UNHCR is after all, and in the main funded by public funds. It should avoid placing itself in a situation as the present one, especially as it already has been accused of bias against Zimbabwean refugees over the years.”
On allegations of police brutality, Pretoria central police spokesperson, Captain Augustinah Selepe said there was no record of the alleged assault on the migrants when they were evicted from the UN offices.
She said people should open cases if they feel aggrieved by police action.