In aftermath of xenophobic violence, thousands placed in poorly equipped camps
(John Moore photo for Getty Images)
Immigrants, most of them from Zimbabwe, are pressed close to the entrance of a government refugee center June 17, 2008 in Johannesburg. The wave of immigrants crossing illegally from Zimbabwe continues, despite the xenophobic violence against immigrants last month.
Robert K. Silverman, a resident of Newton and a student at Yale Law School, is a summer intern with the South African Human Rights Commission in Cape Town. The commission, whose stated mission is to "entrench constitutional democracy through the promotion and protection of human rights," has been focusing on the crisis created by the recent outbreak of xenophobic violence.
By Robert K. Silverman
CAPE TOWN -- I've wanted to spend a summer in South Africa (and specifically in Cape Town) for a really long time. I had heard how beautiful the city was, I admired South Africa's super progressive constitution, and I was intrigued by the legal/social/political issues emerging 15 years after apartheid.
All of this sounded great in the abstract. But the reality has proved to be WAY more intense (and more interesting and more soul-crushingly frustrating) than I expected.
South Africa is still dealing with the aftermath of the waves of xenophobic violence that hit the country about three weeks ago. It doesn't make the headlines in the US, but the country is still very much in crisis.
The South African Human Rights Commission (where I expected to have a nice, relaxing summer internship abroad doing research) suspended all of its normal activities to deal with the crisis. The saying around the office is that the country is in the midst of a nightmare, and the nightmare keeps changing.
Cape Town was not the center of most of the violence, but rioting, looting, and physical assaults did occur over a period of about three days. Approximately 20,000 non-nationals fled their homes about three weeks ago to seek shelter from the government. The city, against the wishes of the province, established five giant refugee camps to house about 10,000 of the non-nationals, with the other half dispersed in about 75 smaller sites -- community halls, churches, mosques, etc.
Setting up the camps was a GIANT mistake. First of all, refugee camps are not nice places. Second of all, South Africa has absolutely no experience with refugee camps, and they have made all kinds of horrible and rather unbelievable decisions. First, they established the camps at resorts, which are located far away from any population centers and have no transport or any other communication with the outside world. They are completely isolated.
Conditions in the camps are absolutely terrible. The government erected flimsy tents right on the beach, right in the middle of the South African winter, which features heavy rain, cold winds, and freezing nights. Being on the beach magnifies the terrible weather. Tents leak -- they let in the wind, rain, and cold -- puddles form on the grounds of the tent, and only a few of the camps have raised mattresses. Blankets and warm clothes are in short supply. Food and medical care are an ongoing challenge.
And the refugees, most of whom fled war-torn or unstable countries (like Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, and Zimbabwe) to find refuge in South Africa, are deeply traumatized by the violence and xenophobia they faced. They have lost their homes and all their possessions. Their neighbors and their communities turned on them. And they're stuck in refugee camps run by an apparently indifferent government, with no solution in sight.
My work has solely focused on the crisis. I arrived in Capetown 10 p.m. Sunday night two weeks ago and was at work at 8 a.m. Monday morning. My first day, we received word that refugees at one of the camps were staging a hunger strike, so off we went in the office 4x4. We arrived to find the camp ringed by heavily armed police and lots of media. We ended up mediating and arrived at a temporary solution, and we were on the front page of the local papers the next day.
(Themba Hadebe photo for AP)
Displaced immigrants are shown at a U.N. temporary camp in Germiston, east of Johannesburg, South Africa, on Monday June 9, 2008.
That pretty much set the tone for my internship right there, although the news has been pretty steadily downhill. I spend about every other day in the camps. This past week has just been moving from crisis to crisis. On Monday, we learned that the government had arrested 14 leaders of a refugee camp because they were staging a protest. On Tuesday, the Somali residents of the largest (and worst) refugee camp threatened mass suicide in protest of the conditions. At least two walked into the sea and had to be rescued and transported to the hospital.
On Wednesday, we received a report of 400 non-nationals that the government had dumped under an overpass in downtown Cape Town. I went with another intern to investigate, and found perhaps the worst sight I have ever seen in my life. Hundreds and hundreds of refugees living under an overpass. The government put up 15 plastic toilets and installed two cold water taps. And that was it. The only shelters were cardboard boxes, plastic wrapping, and newspapers. No regular food, no medical care, no showers, no hot water. At least 500 people, with scores more pouring in after the work day ended. And it was around the corner (literally -- less than 200 yards) from a Mercedes and VW dealership. It was madness. And no one seems to care.
Yesterday I went to two South African jails. The first was to check on the 14 refugee leaders who had been arrested. The second visit came after we received word that police had invaded one of the camps, tried to separate the women and children, and fired rubber bullets and tear gas when they resisted. We went to the camp, confirmed the reports, and then went on to the local jail where one of the refugee leaders was being held, on the same trumped up charge ("intimidation" -- a crime that does not exist in the US) that the other refugee leaders were being held on. The government has decided to criminalize the refugees, because it can't figure out anything else to do. But having the police in the camp just inflames an already tense situation and arresting the leaders just destabilizes the camps even further. Plus, of course, it's a gross abuse of governmental power.
Today we learned that in one of the camps, snakes had started coming into the tents, and people were being infected with lice and ticks.
Very bad times in South Africa. So my internship has obviously not been what I was expecting. In a way the terrible time for the country has meant a super interesting internship for me, but it is intense and deeply disturbing in a way that I hadn't anticipated.
I have seen some pretty terrible things the past two weeks. And what's worse, I feel absolutely helpless to deal with them. We visit the camps, and refugees say you've been here before, we've answered your questions, you've taken notes and written reports, what are you going to do for us? When will things improve? And we have no answer. Things are getting worse, not better, there's no end in sight, no solution, no light at the end of the tunnel, and there's really almost nothing we can do. It's maddening -- just unbelievably frustrating.
So that's been my Capetown experience so far. I spent last weekend exploring the city, which is gorgeous -- just mountains and beaches everywhere you look. And ironically, the camps are located in absolutely stunning places -- some of the most beautiful places i've ever seen in my life. Remote beaches with crashing waves at the end of beautiful drives through the mountains, with new vistas opening up at every turn. Then, of course, you get to the leaky, filthy, freezing refugee camps. It's so incongruous it's unbelievable.
(Denis Farrell photo for AP)
A displaced mother and child in a camp set up for foreigners outside the Primrose Methodist Church, east of Johannesburg on Saturday May 31, 2008.
For more information on the South African Human Rights Commission, visit their website at www.sahrc.org.za. For information on how you can contribute to the Passport blog, please contact the Globe's assistant foreign editor, Kenneth Kaplan, at K_Kaplan@globe.com.