S. Africa Houses Migrants as Toll Rises

By Devon Haynie
Associated Press
Sunday, June 1, 2008

JOHANNESBURG, May 31 -- Authorities began setting up tents at displacement sites in Johannesburg on Saturday to shelter some of the thousands of foreigners who fled a recent wave of xenophobic attacks.

The death toll from the attacks across South Africa rose to 62, with 670 injured, said national police spokeswoman Sally de Beer. The previous death toll stood at 56, but some of the injured died in hospitals. Police have arrested more than 1,300 people.

Relative calm has returned to the country, but tens of thousands of foreigners are still displaced and too scared to return to the communities that chased them out. Many are sleeping in police stations, community halls or even on sidewalks despite the bitter winter cold.

Parts of Gauteng, which includes Johannesburg, and Western Cape provinces have been declared disaster areas in a bid to speed up government funding. Cape Town has been the most efficient in setting up "safe sites" to shelter the displaced.

Authorities in Johannesburg said Friday that they would set up displacement sites this weekend, with the help of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

More than 30,000 Mozambicans have gone home, as well as many Malawians. But it is more difficult for people to return to such strife-torn areas as Somalia, Congo and Burundi. Many Zimbabweans, who make up the bulk of South Africa's migrant population, say the economic meltdown at home makes it impossible for them to return.

The Zimbabwean government had promised to repatriate 1,000 Zimbabweans on Saturday, but only a handful of buses arrived in Johannesburg's makeshift camps, and there were few passengers.

One bus at Primrose station, scene of some of the worst violence, had just 20 people on board. Stewert Kadere was one of them.

"These South Africans, they don't like us," said Kadere, who lived in South Africa for two years. "Those who say it's not safe in Zimbabwe, they are liars."

Hundreds of immigrants milled around the impromptu camp that sprang up outside Primrose Methodist Church, filling out refugee registration forms and waiting in line to be fingerprinted. The Department of Home Affairs says it has to register immigrants for refugee status before it can move them to more formal displacement centers.

People tried to restore a semblance of normalcy to their shattered lives. Laundry hung out to dry on barbed wire that surrounded the area to protect the immigrants from further attacks.

As many as 3 million Zimbabweans are believed to be in South Africa, many of them without formal documentation. Competition for scarce housing and jobs led to the backlash by poor South Africans against the foreigners, and tensions were then exploited by criminals intent on looting homes and property.

Zimbabwean Vincent Chareka, 29, said he would rather stay in South Africa, where he has hopes of earning a living, than board a bus back to his impoverished homeland. He said he backed Zimbabwe's opposition party but did not plan to return home to vote for opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai in the June 27 presidential runoff against incumbent Robert Mugabe.

"I'm the breadwinner for my family," said Chareka, who regularly sends money back to his ailing mother in Zimbabwe. "I don't get paid to go back home and vote."

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