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Attacks on Somalis expose xenophobia

[South Africa] Home Affairs office, Johannesburg.  [Date Picture taken:07/16/2006]
Patience a virtue at the Home Affairs office in downtown Johannesburg (IRIN)

A wave of violent attacks against Somali-run businesses around Cape Town is exposing tensions between poor South Africans and the millions of refugees who have flocked to the country in the hope of a better life.

Hadith Haji Adam, 26, who recently fled his war-torn country in the Horn of Africa, watched his small grocery store burned and vandalised when locals rampaged for several nights in Masiphumelele, an informal settlement near the Cape Peninsula port of Simonstown.

"All 27 shops run by Somalis in the settlement have been destroyed, many people have been injured and my shop is gone too," he said.

"Some people in the community like us, but others don't want the competition. I think some local shopowners are behind the violence against us - they organised the attacks on our businesses and now we have nothing," he alleged.

Like millions from Zimbabwe, Zambia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and other African countries ravaged by war or grinding poverty, Haji Adam came to South Africa seeking refuge and a new start. Instead, he has found xenophobia, often fuelled by jealousy and intense competition for scarce resources.

"There is a huge problem in South Africa with racism and a dislike of foreigners, and it is only getting worse," he said. "The government says they will help us but I do not know when that help will come ... I am staying in temporary accommodation and I don't know how I can open another shop."

According to Ashraf Mohammed, Western Cape coordinator for South Africa's Human Rights Commission, "We are looking into reports that 27 Somalis have been killed in the Western Cape [Province] in the last month alone. We are not in possession of all the details of the incidents in Masiphumelele, but there is certainly a pattern that suggest xenophobia is one of the causes."

XENOPHOBIA ON THE RISE

Although South Africa is the continent's economic powerhouse, it has high unemployment - estimated at 40 percent - and a chronic lack of housing and reliable public services. Poor refugees drawn to the country often find themselves penniless in city centres, squatter camps or crime-ridden, low-income areas, where they compete with thousands of locals for scarce jobs.

In the past year, tensions among refugees and South Africans have boiled over several times, and have often mirrored the circumstances that drove the Masiphumelele attacks. Somali businesses were targeted near Johannesburg, northern Limpopo and Free State provinces, where two people were killed and 80 shops destroyed.

"Since last year xenophobic attacks in South Africa have definitely increased, and have also become more violent," said Katrina Mseme, campaign coordinator for the Roll Back Xenophobia Campaign.

"We started a campaign to educate people in 1998, and to begin to remove the strong strain of xenophobia in the country, but by 2003 that campaign had ended and we are again looking for funds," she said. "We need to educate people; we need to get out into the communities and bring church leaders and community leaders and schools together if we want to reverse the tide of xenophobia and racism."

Mseme said Somalis might find it more difficult to integrate than immigrants from countries bordering South Africa, which could explain why they and their businesses have been targeted so frequently.

Although South Africa's system of apartheid - the forced separation of people based on race - ended 12 years ago, race relations remain fraught. During apartheid communities were isolated from each other and the country was cut off from other African countries and cultures. Only a handful of the hundreds of thousands of migrants crossing the country's borders to work in the diamond and gold mines were integrated into wider society.

The recent influx of foreign migrants - the home affairs department estimates there are over 7 million undocumented immigrants in the country - has coincided with a rise in internal migration as locals relocate from rural to urban areas to find employment.

Competition for jobs, fear of strangers and, in some cases, plain ignorance are believed to be the catalysts triggering violent incidents against refugees.

Lasting solutions to the problems of racism and xenophobia are proving elusive. The Western Cape provincial government said it would launch an awareness campaign and probe the attacks against the Somali community.

Mseme said a long-term national strategy with a focus on education was needed. "When I go out and ask people what a refugee is, a lot of people say to me, 'Oh, it's that guy who sells drugs on the corner, or that one who steals from us'. These are attitudes that must change, because most refugees are law-abiding and contribute to South Africa's culture and economy."

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This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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