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Refugees Condemn Xenophobia in South Africa 

Many African immigrants in South Africa say there will soon be no safe havens to protect them from violence against foreigners. This, after the government announced it plans to close over 165 camps set up after attacks against immigrants four months ago. From Washington, VOA’s Henok Fente reports .

It is the beginning of the rainy season in South Africa. A dark cloud casts a shadow over Aksia Refugee camp in northern Pretoria. Soon it starts to rain. Burundian refugee Abas Ndikumali sits in the downpour, along with his fellow refugees from all over Africa. He speaks to VOA on his cell phone.

“There is no service. The UNHCR has stopped all the services. There is no food. Now we have no tents, we have nothing. By now it is raining and it is really very bad,” he says.

Ndikumali and his fellow refugees came to South Africa in search of opportunity. Many fled their countries because they faced political persecution.

But there has been violence in the country the immigrants call their second motherland.

Last May, anti-immigrant violence erupted in several South African townships, killing at least 62 foreign nationals.

In response, the South African government established more than 165 refugee camps to protect immigrants.

The camps soon became home for tens of thousands of families made up of undocumented persons, refugees, asylum seekers and documented foreign nationals.

By the beginning of the summer South African authorities started closing down the sites, including Aksia, where Ndikumali and 1,300 others from all over Africa sought sanctuary.

Ndikumali remembers what happened in the camp one night in June when South African authorities came to the camp.

“The Metro Police came here and shot dead three people and up to now they have never identified where they put the bodies. And there are no investigations. The police came and attacked the refugees and injured many. They were mixing rubber bullets and live ammunition.”

But Liezel Thom of the local 702 Eye Witness News radio station which covered the attacks says she hasn’t witnessed police firing at these immigrants.

However, other immigrants such as Yilma Shewa Taye from Ethiopia say the the police opened fire on them at night when no one was watching. Taye says they have no water and food supplies.

A member of the South African Parliament representing the ruling ANC party Obed Bapela says the camps were meant to be temporary.

“The government has taken a position to close down the camps. The Aksia one was one of the ones that have to be closed.”

Bapela says the refugees are taking advantage of the situation. He stresses the need to integrate them into society.

“What people were doing was that; because there was free lodging, free food, for a period of two months, they just left from wherever they were staying and went there to [take advantage of] the free arrangements.”

Reporter Thom of Eye Witness News says the refugees don’t feel safe returning to their communities.

“They say they would rather stay at the Aksia camp and die from hunger or from thirst than go back to the communities from which they fled. They also say they would rather have the police shoot them than return to their homes.”

Bapela says there are today more than five million immigrants in South Africa.

An independent joint commission that investigated the situation criticized the UNHCR and the South African government for failing to meet the needs of these African immigrants and called for the UN Human Rights Council to act immediately.

To date, the immigrants and the South African media say attacks in the Akasia camp are continuing.