Home away from home no haven for most

Savious Kwinika

Savious Kwinika

More than 5000 refugees in South Africa will converge on various centres of the country to mark World Refugee Day today.

For many in South Africa, the day will be a time to reflect on the life they are living away from their homelands.

Few can proudly say they have been integrated into the South African society.

Refugees and asylum seekers tell harrowing tales of police abuse and harassment. Without obtaining refugee status first, those who are HIV-positive can not readily access life-saving antiretrovial drugs.

Complicating their livelihood, both refugees and asylum seekers have no accommodation, no food and many have been exposed to the cold this winter.

Sadly, mothers and children sleep on bare floors at Methodist House in central Johannesburg without blankets.

It is those who are lucky to receive donations who can spend the night warmly wrapped in blankets.

Joshua Mambo-Rusere, a political refugee from Zimbabwe whose home was razed by the Zanu-PF youth militia during the height of the bloody 2002 presidential elections, has not found joy and comfort in South Africa five years after he fled his country.

"I am yet to get the refugee status, and what it means is that I am still an asylum seeker. I discovered that being a refugee means continuous suffering.

"I realised for one to be safe, especially in Johannesburg, you need to have lots of money to bribe the police," said Mambo-Rusere.

Maria Hailem, from Rwanda, says she is traumatised by the police conduct. She has been arrested several times in the Braamfontein area and says she can only earn her freedom when she pays bribes. One fateful day she did not have money on her.

"The Hillbrow police drove me to my sister's place where they demanded a R400 bribe," she says.

The next day she did not have money to pay for her daughter's school fees after parting with R400.

Hailem has many tales about police harassment in South Africa.

"Early in March I delayed going to the Home Affairs offices in Pretoria to renew my asylum papers. I was immediately bundled into a police van.

"There were 12 of us in that van and we were made to spend five hours as they drove around with us to Soweto, Johannesburg CBD, Jeppestown and Yeoville. They were threatening us with deportation if we did not pay them bribes.

"When they saw that we did not have the money, they drove us back to Park Station where they dumped us at about midnight," Hailem said.

Norah Tapiwa, of the Zimbabwe Diaspora Civic Society Forum, who was detained by police after producing an asylum paper, says the Home Affairs Department should run an awareness campaign to educate new police recruits to understand that asylum papers or refugees' status permits were different from passports and should be given the respect they deserve.

"I was arrested and detained last Sunday on my way to church in Braamfontein. I was detained for two hours at Park Station. I was told there was no war in Zimbabwe and therefore it was fraud for me to possess asylum papers," Tapiwa says.

She says her papers were torn to pieces, making life difficult for her to travel around the country.

Tapiwa is the coordinator of a forum based in Braamfontein.

Echoing the same sentiments was lawyer for human rights and executive director of the Zimbabwe Exiles Forum, Gabriel Shumba, who says there is a great need to highlight the plight of refugees in South Africa.

He said the refugees - women and children - were susceptible to all kinds of exploitation and had become the most vulnerable group in South Africa.

"Refugees need a safe haven where they can recover from mental and physical trauma, and rebuild their lives for a better future.

"Instead of finding empathy and understanding in the new South Africa, they are instead welcomed with mistrust, scorn and disdain," Shumba says. - CAJ News.