30 September 2020 – As Somali refugee leader, Abdul Hussein* sat glued to his television set, listening to President Ramaphosa announce the nationwide coronavirus lockdown on 23 March, little did he realise that its implications would be his first waking thought and the last thing on his mind before falling into an exhausted sleep, for weeks to come.
“In no time, I was inundated with panicked calls about how our refugee community would survive,” says Hussein.
Albert Mpazayabo, the Secretary General of the Association for Refugee Communities and Organisations in South Africa in the Western Cape, and Director of the Network for Immigrant Rights and Responsibilities in South Africa, saw anxiety and distress increase sharply in the refugee and migrant communities under his stewardship.
“Within hours of the announcement, my constituency become very fearful of the unknown and as leaders, we too were just as uneasy.”
South Africa is home to approximately 266,700 refugees and asylum seekers, mainly in urban areas. Most scrape by working in small grocery shops, hairdressing salons and vegetable stands in townships and rural communities. Lockdown alert level 5, the necessary restrictive measure taken by the government to curb the coronavirus infection rate last March, while ensuring the readiness of its health system, meant that refugees’ ability to generate income was severely affected along with the rest of the population.
“My thoughts raced from one question to another,” recalls Hussein. “What was going to happen if we couldn’t run our businesses? What about the most vulnerable in the community? I had no answers to give in the initial stages of the lockdown, but I had to act fast. Most of them were dependent on my response.”
UNHCR is on hand to complement government efforts to mitigate the effects of lockdown measures and support the most vulnerable among the refugee and asylum-seeker community through this time.
“The world went into lockdown to combat COVID-19,” says Leonard Zulu, Representative of UNHCR’s South Africa Representation based in Pretoria, “and while completely necessary to flatten the curve, in many countries it also hit the poorest very hard. In South Africa many are struggling to make ends meet, including homeless people, female-headed families, and also refugees and asylum seekers. In the first two months of lockdown, over 3,000 people called UNHCR’s Helpline**. Almost all of them needed help to put the next meal on the table or pay the rent.”
For UNHCR, it was important to make sure that refugees and asylum seekers were aware that they were expected to abide by all Department of Health and World Health Organisation (WHO) coronavirus prevention and health safety measures.
UNHCR and its NGO partners provided refugees and asylum seekers with essential information on COVID-19 preparedness and prevention measures through community networks, the UNHCR Refugee Helpline, bulk SMS messaging, mailing lists and public service announcements on television and radio.
This information drives home the message to refugees and asylum seekers that they too are integral to the collective and collaborative national effort to flatten the coronavirus curve just as much as it tells them where to go for help. The message was: we are all in this together.
The Government of South Africa has extended its state welfare grants to refugees who can apply for the grants. UNHCR has also referred over 800 people of concern to the Western Cape Department of Social Development (DSD) to be assessed for assistance under its food relief programme. Many faith-based and civil society organisations have also stepped in to assist the most vulnerable among the populations including refugees and asylum-seekers.
“DSD has commendably delivered approximately 20,000 food parcels to hungry families across the province, including to some refugee families without any other source of income,” says Zulu.
Unfortunately, asylum seekers, refugees and other persons of concern who are undocumented or insufficiently documented are not eligible to receive the DSD grants, so UNHCR and its social protection partners are working hard to fill the gaps, reaching 36,800 people with one off cash-based interventions to serve as a temporary safety net.
“Cash assistance is provided to the most vulnerable refugees, like people who are older, sick or have disabilities, female-headed households and survivors of gender-based violence,” explains UNHCR’s Zulu. “The great benefit of cash-based assistance is that refugees not only decide for themselves whether to spend the money on food, rent or other essentials, but that they have the dignity of that choice.”
UNHCR’s NGO partners also delivered food parcels to destitute and vulnerable refugees and asylum seekers in the Western Cape, containing enough groceries to feed a family of four for one month. HCI and e-Media, a South African media group, raised over ZAR 19 million to provide food to some of the most vulnerable South African families in the country, as well as to refugees and asylum seekers living in Cape Town.
Similarly, the Old Mutual Foundation donated ZAR 525,000 to UNHCR, to provide urgent humanitarian assistance to vulnerable people of concern. Unilever has also provided hygiene promotion products to help prevent COVID-19 infections for distribution in South Africa and in other countries in the Southern African region. UNHCR and its protection partners have appealed for a further USD 2.3 million to support vulnerable members of the refugee and host communities affected by the crisis, as part of the UN Country Team’s USD 136 million appeal to combat the impact of the pandemic in South Africa.
The gesture of ubuntu and solidarity continues through faith-based and non-profit organisations like Islamic Relief South Africa, the Muslim Refugee Association of South Africa and United Family to name a few, which have also provided food parcels to thousands of refugees and South African citizens in the outlying and poverty-stricken neighbourhoods around Cape Town.
While the refugee community have expressed their gratitude for the much-needed assistance, they are also anxious to return to self-sufficiency. “We want to go back to being self-reliant, independent and living with dignity,” says Hussein.
Refugees look forward to the time that they, alongside everyone else, can reopen their businesses, and resume normal life.
By Pumla Rulashe in Pretoria
** UNHCR’s toll-free Helpline can be reached at 0800 100 030