UNHCR thrust into the “politics of crumbs” as efforts to integrate refugees resisted

By | 31 August 2017

Efforts to foster peaceful co-existence and local integration of refugees in South Africa continue despite challenges of recurring violence and discrimination…

By Pumla Rulashe   |  31 August 2017

DURBAN, South Africa – A little over a month after the shooting death of his young brother in their small shop in Durban’s Inanda Township, Ethiopian refugee Melaku Seifu*continues running his small township business, knowing that he cannot go on for much longer. According to his countrymen, he is a shell of his former self.

Seifu’s brother Abraham fell victim to unknown assailants shortly after fake news circulated on social media in June 2017, alleging that foreign nationals were behind the abduction and trafficking of children. The story had township youth in Inanda and neighbouring locations up in arms, demanding the arrest of the perpetrators.

As the South African Police Services (SAPS) acted quickly to stamp out the violence that ensued, Ethiopian refugee community leader, Tsegaye Negesse* claims, “this gave some of our local business competitors the opportunity to once again, try and remove us from the townships.”   

The ploy has succeeded where Seifu is concerned. He is worn out and tired of being a victim of repeated harassment and attack.

Seifu has approached UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency for assistance with resettlement. As he waits to hear from the police on the arrest of his brother’s killers and UNHCR, Seifu buries his grief deep within and carries on with his life and his business.

The 37 year old who was forced to flee Ethiopia for his vocal political views in 2009, has reinforced the exterior of his shop – a shipping container – with mesh steel fencing and other security features as deterrents. He has also employed a local resident of the township to continue running the shop.

The fortress that has now become Seifu ‘s shop and only source of income, is symbolic of the love- hate relationship refugees have with the communities they serve and the running battles they endure with their South African business counterparts.

Ahmed* is another refugee who is as equally a victim of harassment as Seifu. The difference between them though is that he has no intentions of leaving South Africa. The Somali refugee businessman arrived in the country 16 years ago and started out as a hawker, selling domestic items door-to-door, seven days a week.

“I started business from zero wearing shoes worn down by walking the streets,” he recalls. “I endured insult, injury and all weather conditions and today, I own a retail warehouse and employ 60 people, a large number of them South African.”

Before the violence that erupted in June, Ahmed owned five small shops in KwaMashu, a township outside Durban and next to Inanda. Unlike Seifu who has returned to rebuild his business, Ahmed has been advised against this as the next time he comes under attack it could have deadly consequences. 

The ominous warning has since kept him out of KwaMashu and focused on his warehouse in Durban’s central business district.

Accounts of refugee victimisation and harassment in the competition for the “crumbs of South Africa’s township economy,” is, according to William Zenzele, the President of the KwaZulu Natal Youth Chamber of Commerce and Industry, “an indication of the prolonged lack of economic development in many areas of the country where crime is rife and unemployment, particularly amongst the youth, is high.”

According to Trading Economics, South Africa’s youth unemployment rate increased to almost 60 percent in the second quarter of 2017 from 54.30 percent in the first quarter of the year.

“It is some of this youth that become the foot soldiers who do the bidding of disgruntled township business owners bent on destabilising refugee and foreign owned shops in the locations,” says Negesse.

Zenzele states that the proliferation of shopping malls in townships has – because of its multi-billion Rand muscle – sidelined and pitched emerging entrepreneurs in fierce competition against each other, on the periphery of the township economy.

“The unintended consequences of this commercial exercise on small-scale family run businesses has not only been consistent loss of revenue but the perpetuation of the cycle of poverty in the townships.”

“On top of that,” he continues, “the influx of refugees and foreign nationals also competing for the crumbs from the table of multi-million dollar retail industries has created an environment where the locals who are in the majority attack the minority who they feel pose a threat to their survival.”

“Xenophobia and a culture of discrimination and violence combined with the competition for limited jobs and resources is a concern UNHCR addresses as practically and as multi-faceted as possible,” says Sharon Cooper, UNHCR Regional Representative for Southern Africa. 

To support the government’s efforts in addressing xenophobia following violent attacks in 2015, UNHCR coordinated the UN emergency response plan to support the government’s early action to contain the attacks.  Early warning mechanisms and advocacy by the UNHCR-led Protection Working Group led to the arrest of some of the perpetrators.

With support from other agencies and partners, the office conducted a comprehensive needs assessment and supported close to 3 000 asylum-seekers and refugees through legal and human rights interventions, counselling and social support.

“Today, UNHCR and its NGO partners monitor attacks against refugees by assessing situations based on information received from our persons of concern. We look into the factors leading to violence and the challenges presenting problems to integration. We also undertake incident verification exercises to quantify and qualify the number of refugee businesses and persons targeted, damaged or destroyed.”

In the recent unrest in Durban, approximately 45 refugee owned businesses in Inanda, KwaMashu and Chesterville townships were looted and destroyed.

Through coordinated intervention involving the SAPS, ward councilors from affected sections within the townships, respected community elders, UNHCR and its NGO partners, meetings to broker peace and  iron out differences to enable refugees to return back to the communities usually yields the desired results.

The agency also encourages refugees to insure their goods and the tools of their trade such as electric clippers, combs, razor blades and capes to enable them to re-stock small to get back on their feet.

“UNHCR, is also very mindful of the socio-economic challenges in these deprived communities which we are unable to address,” says Cooper. “We are however heavily invested in including small numbers of South Africans in livelihood activities and life skills programmes for refugees.”

UNHCR prioritises and engages closely with South Africa’s youth, usually at the forefront of xenophobia fueled looting and violence, on the plight, rights and obligations of refugees and other persons of concern. © UNHCR/Pumla Rulashe

UNHCR prioritises and engages closely with South Africa’s youth, usually at the forefront of xenophobia fueled looting and violence, on the plight, rights and obligations of refugees and other persons of concern.   © UNHCR/Pumla Rulashe

UNHCR also supports public information and education campaigns on the plight, rights and obligations of refugees undertaken by the Department of Home Affairs, the Department of Social Development and respected human rights organisations. This is to ensure that communities are better informed about the reasons leading to refugee crises and the obligations South Africa has towards those seeking protection.

“Working with the South African government and other institutions is critical if we’re going to provide refugees who have fled persecution and have lost the protection of their countries, the opportunity to start over again,” adds Cooper.

Many township residents complain however that refugees do very little to ensure their integration at community level. Complaints that refugees from particular countries are aloof, isolate themselves and are disinterested in the community they supposedly serve, are unfortunately quite common.

Ahmed* disputes this.

“I have made all kinds of overtures to engage my South African counterparts with the aim of assisting them glean business skills from refugee traders but all of them have been ignored.”

“This makes me believe that it is not just our business practices that pose a threat to some local business people. It is our very presence.”

Irrespective of what the case may be UNHCR strongly urges refugees to actively participate in lawful community based activities to better facilitate their integration in the townships.

For Seifu* though, “Enough is enough. I can’t continue living like this.”

Ahmed on the other hand is adamant. “My family and I are going nowhere.”

Ahmed says he has no intentions of starting over again in any other part of the world.

“I have done all the starting over I am going to do. South Africa is the only home my children know and Africa is where I choose to remain.”

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of refugees interviewed