Thursday, May 29, 2008

Govt prepares for 14 camps: South Africa: Xenophobia: News24, an online news portal in the Naspers group of companies, posted the article below an hour ago (produced by Beeld). To read it in its original context, click on the article heading below.

This is a first for South Africa and has been called for by various groups since well before the current wave of xenophobia. In my opinion this is a major development, if it is confirmed officially off-course. I'll comment on it lower down...

Govt prepares for 14 camps
29/05/2008 08:24 - (SA)

Staff Reporters, Beeld

Cape Town - The government was to announce on Thursday that camps would be set up countrywide for the victims of xenophobic attacks.

However, the camps would not be referred to as refugee camps because of the negative connotations of such a name worldwide.

From what Beeld was able to gather, the Cabinet met until about 17:00 on Wednesday to discuss the proposed camps, among other things.

This came after a meeting on Monday between President Thabo Mbeki, the Cabinet committee which was established to deal with the matter, and provincial premiers.

Mbeki was to meet UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres in Japan on Thursday where the crisis would be discussed.

Exact details of the plan could not be confirmed officially on Wednesday, but Beeld was able to determine the following:

  • "Shelter camps" (perhaps with a more-acceptable name) would be announced which temporarily would provide foreigners with shelter and food in the interests of their safety, health and sanitation;
  • There would be up to 14 of these camps countrywide - seven large and seven small ones;
  • Foreigners would stay in the camps "for as long as necessary" - no timeframe was given;
  • It looked as if metro councils would be approached by provinces to cordon off areas for the camps.
  • Metro councils in Gauteng and the Western Cape - where the xenophobic attacks were the most widespread - would get camps, but not the metro councils in the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal;
  • The number of foreigners in the country was estimated at about 51 000 on Wednesday night, of which about 28 000 were in Gauteng and 20 000 in the Western Cape; (((I assume this refers to the number of people displaced by the xenophobic violence as there are obviously many more foreigners in the country!)))
  • It seemed as if the national government was not in favour of the UN openly helping because it considered the country to be in a position to resolve the matter itself;
  • The Ekurhuleni metro would erect tented camps on the outskirts of Springs and Germiston, and possibly in the Kempton Park area too; and
  • The greater Johannesburg city council already was working on plans for camps, together with the national and provincial government.

    At the time of going to press no comment could be obtained from the Tshwane metro council in Pretoria.

  • Years ago, as a student journalist, I was part of a church drama group that went to sing for FW & Marike de Klerk... :-). At the time he was still the president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela had been released from prison and negotiations for a new dispensation was well under way. We got to drink tea and enjoy snacks with the first couple in their official residence afterwards. A very strange experience! Being a young idealistic, aspiring, journalist I asked FW for his thoughts on the role of the media. He answered that he saw it as a necessary evil. I was slightly taken aback...

    In the years since I've used the phrase quite often myself. It comes to mind again with the above breaking news. To spell it out: Setting up refugee camps (or whatever you elect to call them) in South Africa is a necessary evil at best. It is too late to avoid it. It is not good news.

    I actually value the Government's stance up to now, i.e. that it is best for immigrants to integrate with society in general. However, it seems as if this policy was also an excuse to ignore the problem of illegal immigration. Best also not to create camps for Zimbabwe immigrants, how do you explain then some of the mind boggling claims by Thabo Mbeki that there's no crisis in Zimbabwe? For immigrants to integrate successfully into society they should have been officially recognised as immigrants or refugees. They should have been processed, i.e. given documents. This should have been done in a way that ensured local communities that foreigners living among them where there legally. And so one can go on. The list of shortcomings, policy failures, mismanagement, incompetence, corruption and neglect in regard to immigration by Government at all levels is a very very long one.

    Where to from here? I fear incredible damage has been done in the last few weeks. While the occurrence of xenophobia is not entirely new in South Africa, the scale of the the recent events is such that it complicates the issue tremendously. In an ideal world politicians would talk to the relevant local communities and lay their fears to rest so that they can welcome back immigrants and they would live together happily ever after. Dream on...

    We now have a bizarre new kind of Apartheid in South Africa. Us equals South Africans and them the 'illegal ones' or 'refugees'. In the short term pure humanitarian considerations dictate that camps be set up. But would you like to live in such a camp? Do you want your children to live in such a camp!? How much better would it be for these people to get out into society again and earn their keep through productive means. I suspect that the refugee-camps-by-another-name will also function as a first stop in the deportation chain ending somewhere north of our borders. While some of the deported will have doubts about returning to South Africa they will find exactly the same circumstances they fled in the first place - virtual dictatorship in Zimbabwe, anarchy in Somalia, etc. As before most of them will probably come back through the revolving door that is our borders. Deportation is not a viable long-term solution. They only kind of deportation that works is the kind that basically assists the limited amount of immigrants who want to return to their home countries in doing so.

    I'm very curious to see how these camps will be managed. Will the inhabitants thereof have freedom of movement in and out of the camps? Will they be documented? Will they be assisted in finding alternative housing? Will permanent structures be built in the camps? Only time will tell, but what is sure is that South Africans cannot be critical enough in following future developments around this - it goes to the core of the values entrenched in our constitution.

    1 comment:

    Sherrin said...

    I once interviewed a Sudanese refugee for a journalism assignment at uni, and the article was later published in "Christian Woman". One of the things that I remember from my talk with her was her stories about how awful the refugee camps were. They were dangerous places, apparently. Of course, I have no idea if her experience is normative! However, I remember that it surprised me that after she fled Sudan she did not find real shelter even in a refugee camp.

    Maybe one day those who have been refugees will enter government, and make a difference for others.