The New York Times
May 29, 2008

South Africa Weighs Refugee Camps


JOHANNESBURG In the wake of a convulsion of violence against foreigners, the South African authorities are planning to establish refugee camps to house tens of thousands of displaced people who fled their homes in impoverished squatter areas, international relief officials said on Wednesday.

Yusuf Hassan, a spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said the authorities had asked the agency to help ensure that the camps to be called "temporary places of safety" met international standards. Initially, the camps would house 11,000 people who are now sheltering near police stations scattered around South Africa. The UNHCR, he said in a telephone interview, would provide some 2,000 tents and an expert to find sites close to urban amenities.

Muriel Cornelis, a representative in Johannesburg of the Paris-based Doctors Without Borders said the authorities had promised a decision by Wednesday night on the proposal, which could eventually provide shelter for as many as 70,000 people.

The idea of refugee camps in one of Africa's wealthiest nations has come as a surprise to some relief experts and to middle-class South Africans accustomed to seeing their land in a different light compared to poorer countries further north in the continent.

The government's plan, moreover, has met with resistance from international agencies which maintain that the tens of thousands of homeless people from Zimbabwe, Mozambique and elsewhere need immediate help rather than waiting for camps to be built.

Some aid officials maintain that South Africa does not have the expertise to run such facilities. One relief official, who spoke in return for anonymity because he did not wish to jeopardize cooperation with the government, said international agencies feared that the camps could become "ghettos" riven with conflicts and potential sexual violence.

Many of the refugees are in temporary shelters where Ms. Cornelis said conditions are worsening with the spread of diarrhea and chest infections. "We have advocated for an immediate response rather than a delayed one," she said in a telephone interview, arguing that the displaced foreigners need improved sanitation, showers and clean drinking water.

More than 50 people were killed in the attacks, which began near Johannesburg earlier this month and spread to other places including Cape Town. The authorities in neighboring Mozambique declared a state of emergency to cope with thousands of their citizens returning home unexpectedly.

Even during the apartheid era, South Africa's mineral wealth attracted thousands of migrants from black-ruled countries such as Malawi and Mozambique to work in the mines. But, since the dawn of majority rule in the 1990s, the country has been a magnet for foreigners from as far afield as Somalia, drawn to South Africa as their own countries descend into chaos.

In addition, as many as three million Zimbabweans have fled their country to look for work in South Africa, provoking the resentment of some South Africans who see the outsiders as threats to their own jobs and well-being.

South Africa accounts for a third of sub-Saharan Africa's economic output and is home to an estimated five million foreigners. But jobs are scarce, housing is often poor and prices are rising, sharpening the contest between South Africa's own poor and the poverty-stricken immigrants.

Last Sunday, President Thabo Mbeki assailed by his critics for failing to show leadership during the crisis described the wave of xenophobic attacks as an "absolute disgrace" that has blemished the country's reputation.

"Never since the birth of our democracy have we witnessed such callousness," he said in a 10-minute nationally televised speech.

The violence, in which attackers burned some foreigners to death, rekindled memories of the apartheid era when the so-called "necklace" a blazing tire around the neck of a victim became a form of harsh reprisal in the country's township protests against the white regime.

Celia Dugger reported from Johannesburg and Alan Cowell from Paris.