Rustenburg – Over the years, many Somali refugees in South Africa have achieved substantial independence and self-sufficiency without the assistance of the UN refugee agency. These skilled traders have relied on cultural and religious ties and networks, business savvy, determination and single-mindedness to establish businesses and ensure their communities function on clearly formulated lines.
Newly arrived Somali refugees – avoiding the congested cities of Johannesburg, Pretoria, Cape Town, Durban and Port Elizabeth – venture into rural towns that have had no significant interaction with refugees and other foreigners. But the refugees’ encroachment into these areas is increasingly triggering fierce resistance, which often ends in the loss of property or even life. One Somali community is acting to end the animosity.
Abdul Mohammed is chairperson of the newly constituted Somali Community Board of Rustenburg, a mining town in rural North West Province, an organization that is the first place Somali refugees in the region call when faced with problems ranging from domestic discord to issues of life and death. When a UNHCR team arrived at his office in early March, he was on the telephone arranging the funeral of a fellow refugee killed by unknown assailants at his business premises.
“This is the eighth unprovoked killing of a Somali refugee within a year in this area,” he told UNHCR Senior Community Services Assistant Mmone Moletsane. She had been invited by Mohammed and his organization, which is straining to respond to his community’s growing needs.
Assaults on Somali refugees in South Africa have been increasing. In 2007, the Eastern Cape Province was at the centre of some of the most horrific attacks on Somali refugee traders.
This trend has spread to three other rural provinces, leaving provincial governments red faced and wondering how to respond. UNHCR is helping them develop strategies to raise awareness on the presence of refugees, their basic human rights and South Africa’s responsibility to protect these rights.
The Somali Community Board has completed its own research on why the Somali community is under threat. Mohammed acknowledges his countrymen have done little to promote their integration in the communities in which they have established their small and medium-sized businesses.
“We have just come in and set up our shops, without seeking information and understanding the culture of the area in which we have settled,” he admitted. A poor command of English and no knowledge of local languages have further alienated these communities. They cannot communicate with their patrons beyond a greeting and stating prices.
As a priority, the Somali body has committed to introducing members to community leaders, tribal authorities and organizations to explain why they are in the country.
To ease tension with local business interests, they have committed to placing their shops two kilometres apart so local traders can compete for customers without being squeezed out by a concentration of Somali-owned stores. They are also ready to elect representatives from the Somali refugee community to participate in Community Policing Forums, which together with the South African Police Services maintain law and order in communities.
“From a community development point of view, I really commend the Somali Community Board for their proactive initiatives towards addressing the problems they face,” said Moletsane, who has been active in UNHCR’s efforts to combat xenophobia. “They are very organized and have demonstrated the capacity to solve some of their problems even.”
Alongside its own solutions for promoting integration, the Somali organization has raised a number of concerns that require the refugee agency’s intervention. The continued lack of access to state documents showing their status – and a lack of recognition by many officials after they are obtained – perpetuates the refugees’ vulnerability.
“Because our refugee permits are generally not recognized by people in authority the threat of harassment and imprisonment is an ever present possibility for all of us,” said Mohammed. “Parents keep their children out of public schools fearing their victimization by teachers and students. Because of this they need to enrol in private schools whose fees are completely out of our reach.”
The organization also wants to acquire premises for a shelter to house and feed the most vulnerable in their community, which includes widows and single parent-headed households. This will require some support, guidance and assistance from UNHCR, which is now under discussion.
Although Mohammed puts on a brave face, the strain of his responsibilities and the fear that lurks just beneath the surface is evident in his demeanour. But he is clearly relieved he has now made contact with UNHCR to get extra support for a refugee community that has shown it is ready to help itself