The United Nations refugee agency has distributed blankets and mats to the victims of a wave of violent xenophobic attacks in South Africa’s Gauteng province since last weekend that have killed dozens of people and forced an estimated 13,000 people to flee their homes.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said it has handed out about 2,000 blankets and 2,000 mats in several police stations across Gauteng, which is centred on Johannesburg, the country’s most populous city.
Many of the displaced – who include refugees, asylum-seekers and other migrants – have sought protection from the angry mobs at police stations, but are sleeping in the open nearby, according to a statement issued by UNHCR yesterday.
The South African Government has opened “joint operation centres” at police stations and community centres to house some of the displaced and to coordinate aid delivery from humanitarian agencies to the victims.
UNHCR staff who have visited some of the centres say many lack sufficient toilets and washing facilities to house the sudden arrivals. In one community hall in the town of Germiston, about 2,800 people have crowded in to find shelter.
One of the arrivals, Filizarda Mbanza, told UNHCR staff that she fled her shack on the outskirts of Germiston at the weekend after a neighbour told her that a crowd was approaching.
“I was terrified!” she said. “My husband was at work and I was alone with the baby. What was I to take from our shack? The warnings were drawing closer and I was in a panic. I had to get out [of] there before my baby and I were attacked.”
Ms. Mbanza, who has a three-month-old baby, said she does not know if her husband is still alive.
Doudou Diène, the UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, told UN Radio that this week’s events indicate just how widespread xenophobia is in today’s world.
He said he was especially saddened by the fact that these events are taking place in South Africa.
“Sadness, because this happened in a country where the majority of the population has been marginalized, institutionally discriminated with violence for years, and a country which has liberated itself by fighting that institutional racism.”