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Refugees With Hopes, Skills Find Opportunity in S. Africa

By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, January 9, 2005; Page A21

MUIZENBERG, South Africa -- The absence of gunfire was among the first things Axel Geraud noticed when he arrived in this seaside town with $250 in his pocket and the sound of war still ringing in his ears. But as a refugee, he soon discovered something else appealing about post-apartheid South Africa: opportunity.

The phones and electricity worked every day. The roads were wide and smooth. The violent upheavals common elsewhere in Africa, including in Geraud's home in the Republic of Congo, appeared consigned to the past. And despite chronic unemployment among millions of low-skilled workers, demand ran strong for people such as Geraud, who has a law degree and speaks five languages.

Axel Geraud, who holds a law degree, fled the violence in his native Republic of Congo, eventually arriving in South African, where he owns the first Internet cafe in a resort community near Cape Town. (Craig Timberg -- The Washington Post)

This mix has made South Africa, once the continent's pariah because of racial oppression, the favored destination for educated, ambitious refugees from other parts of Africa with political and economic problems. Despite the near-total lack of government services for immigrants, they find successful niches in sub-Saharan Africa's largest and most sophisticated economy.

"South Africa is the powerhouse of Africa," said Geraud, 33, who owns an Internet cafe in this resort community near Cape Town. "I've been to a few African countries. They're all looking to South Africa as a solution."

The shift is all the more striking because South Africa was long a place from which people fled as political exiles, including the current president, Thabo Mbeki. When the U.N. refugee agency opened its office in South Africa during the dying days of apartheid in 1991, its job was to ease the return of exiles, not welcome newcomers.

That changed soon after, and the influx accelerated with the arrival of multi-racial democracy in 1994, when the white minority government was replaced by one led by the African National Congress's Nelson Mandela, a hero to much of the continent.

South Africa has long been a magnet for migrants who came to work in its mines and other industries but maintained homes in their countries of origin. Over the past decade, however, newcomers have increasingly come to stay, and restrictions on permanent immigration have gradually eased.

South Africa never built the refugee camps common elsewhere in Africa, which offer housing, food and education. Instead, refugees survive with the help of family or friends and support themselves by doing such things as selling fruit, washing cars or guarding buildings, a U.N. survey found in 2003. The decline in professional status is typically sharp, but also temporary.

Many refugees eventually start their own businesses or find skilled jobs, though often not in the same line of work as in their home countries, and they are rarely a drain on public services. Few in the U.N. survey reported receiving any formal assistance, and 87 percent said their income came from employment.

That money, typically, becomes a major source of financial support to those they have left behind. Foreign workers in South Africa are crucial to the economies of many countries on the continent because of the hundreds of millions of dollars they send home, according to the World Bank.

About 120,000 people have either received or applied for political asylum in the past decade, most of them from other African nations, according to U.N. figures. More than 1 million others, by various estimates, are in South Africa illegally, mostly from neighboring Mozambique and Zimbabwe. South Africa has 46 million legal residents.

The surge of immigrants and refugees has stirred ambivalence -- and some outright hostility -- among South Africans, many of whom see them as outsiders who bring crime or steal jobs.

Immigrants often report being called makwerekwere, a derogatory term for foreigners. Human rights groups have long reported abuse of immigrants, including harassment by police. A study by the University of the Witwatersrand found that 71 percent of immigrants surveyed in Johannesburg reported being stopped by police, more than double the rate reported by South African citizens.

But the flow of arrivals has not slowed. Two out of three asylum seekers here in 2003 had arrived since 2000, according to the U.N. survey. Most have come from Angola, Somalia, Ethiopia, Burundi, Rwanda, Zimbabwe and Congo, as well as its smaller neighbor, the Republic of Congo.

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