'We do not know where we belong'

ABDIRIZAK Abdullahi came to South Africa five years ago with only one dream - to live in peace away from the war, violence and terror in his homeland Somalia.

But for the past 10 months Abdullahi and 179 fellow refugees have been living under "inhumane" conditions at the Riet Family Guidance Centre in Randfontein on the West Rand.

They are forgotten refugees, displaced victims of the 2008 xenophobia attacks. Riet was supposed to provide temporary shelter for four months.

Their host, Ivan Kortje, the executive director of the centre, no longer wants them there but when he tried to have them removed last July he was stopped by a court interdict. He still does not know when they will leave. In the meantime, those who are supposed to be responsible are passing the buck.

Like thousands in his position, Abdullahi had to leave his home and belongings in Akasia, Pretoria, after the outbreak of xenophobic violence, which left 60 people dead and about 10000 foreigners displaced.

He says: "When we were forced to run from our homes because of the violence, it reminded me of the time I left Somalia without my family. The war was raging and I left them there. I don't know if they are still alive today."

The one thing he knows for sure, however, is that he wants to leave South Africa. Soon.

In fact, he and a group of fellow Somali refugees attempted to do that last year but ended up in jail.

Said Abdullahi: "We hired a few cars to cross into Botswana but when we arrived on the other side, we were arrested by Botswana police."

After unsuccessfully trying to negotiate with the Botswana and South African authorities, the group returned to South Africa and were shifted from one makeshift refugee camp to another.

Abdullahi spent 10 months in an Akasia camp. Then he and hundreds of others were moved to the Carroll Shaw Memorial Shelter in March last year.

They stayed there for a month and were moved to Riet.

Abdullahi says it has been a horrible experience since he fled his home in Pretoria. He reserves particularly harsh words for the United Nations high commissioner for refugees.

"The UN brought us here but they have abandoned us. We have been sitting here hopeless. We can't even leave the centre because we could get arrested for not having the proper papers," he said.

The conditions at the centre are atrocious. Their living quarters are in a squalid condition.

Sanitation is inadequate since all 179 people - including women and a number of new-born babies - have to share three toilets. There is one shower, without hot water. The sewerage system is dilapidated.

Puddles of soapy water have formed in the entrance to the toilets. The refugees complain bitterly about the mosquitoes.

Inside the sleeping quarters people are forced to sleep on the cold floor with a few blankets.

Congolese refugee Mariah Mwala said Kortje took away the beds they were sleeping on seven months ago.

Kortje confirmed this.

"They are not supposed to be here because they are not our responsibility," he said.

He said the government should take responsibility for the refugees because the centre was meant for abused women and children.

Mwala showed us her tick-infested blankets.

The centre does not provide any of the essentials because of what Kortje calls "budget constraints".

The saddest sight was seeing three new-born babies living under such harsh conditions.

Their parents have not been able to access social grants for them because they do not have the correct refugee papers.

Jason Brickhill of the Legal Resources Centre, which blocked the removal of the refugees from the centre last year with a court interdict, said they were no closer to helping the refugees.

The refugees are currently undergoing a series of interviews to assess their suitability for resettlement in other countries.

Brickhill said the interviews would focus on the refugees' personal details, skills, qualifications as well as to verify their status. Only after the interviews are completed will the UNHCR be able to approach countries willing to host them.

Abdi Farah, who also came to the country five years ago with Abdullahi, has almost lost hope.

"We don't know where we belong. Only God can help us now," he says.