UN agency voices concern over ‘xenophobic attacks’ on Somalis in South Africa
“Skilled traders by nature, many Somali refugees and asylum seekers have in the last three years set up businesses in townships and informal settlements characterized by grinding poverty and growing crime,” the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said in a news release.
“But this appears to have caused resentment in some of the townships and settlements, which have erupted in xenophobia-fuelled animosity towards Somali refugees. Uneasy with their presence, marauding residents appear to be bent on expelling them from these communities by looting and destroying their businesses.”
As a result, Somalis are moving away from the traditional areas of refugee residence in Cape Town, Durban, Johannesburg, Pretoria and Port Elizabeth for more remote towns and villages in the interior which have had no previous interaction with foreigners.
Some Somalis suspect that local businessmen, angered at being undercut and alarmed at the competition, are behind recent attacks on their shops in some areas and the rising tension with locals. Somali leaders have also accused the police of helping themselves to their goods during attacks. The police firmly deny such charges and say any goods they are able to salvage during the looting are taken to the local police station for safe keeping.
The residents of one area, Motherwell, believe the Somali community also has questions to answer. They want proof that Somali businesses are registered and pay tax. They also want to know if Somali businesses that hire South African nationals are complying with unemployment insurance regulations and if the goods they sell are sourced legitimately and meet quality standards set by the government.
“A level of transparency and forthrightness is required in responding to these questions,” UNHCR protection officer Monique Ekoko. “The issue of pricing is a major concern to local business communities. A commitment to resolving what appears to be an impasse is required of both local and Somali refugee traders if they are to live together harmoniously.
“Similarly, while keeping the South African population informed of the causes and other factors that give rise to refugee outflows, Somali refugees have to be encouraged to coexist more productively with their hosts. Unfortunately, it appears as though refugees don’t make the effort to be part of the community they work in and that is just a recipe for conflict,” she added.
The South African government is taking the matter very seriously. Home Affairs Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula said the Refugees Act of 1996 would be amended this year to provide more efficient refugee management.
“UNHCR hopes that as the government becomes increasingly vocal on this matter, the people of South Africa will take its concerns to heart,” the agency said.