News / Africa

Somali Refugees Struggle in South Africa

Abdikadir Hassan Mohammed has been a victim of several robberies in his Mayfair shop in Johannesburg. (VOA/S. Honorine)
Abdikadir Hassan Mohammed has been a victim of several robberies in his Mayfair shop in Johannesburg. (VOA/S. Honorine)
Solenn Honorine
South Africa attracts more asylum seekers than any other country in the world.  There are 58,000 refugees in the country and more than 200,000 pending cases for asylum seekers. Somalis are among the most visible of the refugee communities as they usually are traders who operate in the most destitute places. But this leaves them vulnerable to very high levels of crime.

In the dry heat of the austral summer, 103th Street in Johannesburg recalls images from the other side of the continent. A veiled woman listens to Quran readings in her shop and Amin Salat, chairman of the Somali Association of South Africa, stops every two steps to shake hands with tall, lean men with the unmistakable bearing of people from the Horn of Africa.

“We are in... we call it here “Mogadishio”, the street of Mogadishio and the suburb of Mogadishio, but in fact it's Mayfair, in Johannesburg," said Salat.

103rd Street in Johannesburg has been nicknamed 103rd Street in Johannesburg has been nicknamed "Mogadishio" for its large Somali community. (VOA/S. Honorine)
x
103rd Street in Johannesburg has been nicknamed
103rd Street in Johannesburg has been nicknamed "Mogadishio" for its large Somali community. (VOA/S. Honorine)
Somalis form one of the most visible refugee minorities in South Africa. Because their country has not had a functioning government in two decades, they cannot be turned away by any country that has signed the U.N. Convention for Refugees.

Salat says that South Africa has a particular appeal for them. Its laws, described as “good” by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, grant refugees the right to work, study and even a chance to become a full-fledged citizens, after a few years. And perhaps even more important, Salat says, South Africa has a no-camp policy, which allows refugees to settle wherever they want.

“The majority of them, they build a better life here in South Africa. When it come to education, business, what you're doing, you know, that kind of freedoms, you can do whatever you want and South Africa is better than any other country in Africa," he said.

But there is a very high price to pay to live in South Africa - security.

In 2008, xenophobic attacks flared throughout the country, displacing thousands of people. But even though this type of wide-scale violence has disappeared from the front pages, they have not stopped. Last year, the UNHCR recorded 100 violent deaths among refugees in South Africa.

“They hate us. They say to us “those East African people, they take all our business places," said a cafe owner.

“I was robbed once when I was in George. I was admitted to the hospital.  I was in the hospital for seven days. I got 12 stitches on the left side of my face, as you can see. And... Yeah! It happens! That is common crime, that happens in the country," said a supplier.

Xenophobia plays a role in the violence against Somalis. But criminals also know that because of bureaucratic hurdles, it is difficult for refugees to open bank accounts. Robbers are so likely to find cash in Somali-owned stores that humanitarians say they have been nicknamed the community “ATMs” (automated bank-teller machines).

Abdikadir Hassan Mohammed, owner a small stationery store in Mayfair, agrees.

He says that every evening, he goes home with his pocket full of cash, and thieves know it. He has been robbed several times, and as long as he cannot use an ATM, he says he cannot have security and peace of mind.

Those problems are compounded by the fact that Somali traders work everywhere, in the poorest and most crime-ridden townships.

Mohammed Reys Osman, who supplies cellphones to local Somali shops around Johannesburg, says the risk of being robbed is ever present - so much so that he will stop working for the whole month leading up to Christmas, when violent crime in the area typically increases.

“These guys, their targets, it's that they want to find people that, even if they shoot them, nobody would follow. And, people who are easily targeted, that's mostly the Somalians. So, for me to lower my risk I'm working with South Africans," said Osman.

For the refugees, the biggest hope is to see an improvement in their own country's political situation. Signs are improving; the Somali Association of South Africa says a small group of refugees has chosen to go back this year. It is the first time in a decade it has happened.

You May Like

Video Anti-Muslim Sponsor of Texas Cartoon Contest Draws Ire

Pamela Geller's supporters say she speaks truth about sensitive topic, while critics say she preaches 'that Islam is inherently evil' More

East Meets West in Exhibition Showing Chinese Influence on Fashion

Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition juxtaposes influence of art, imagery and culture, from Imperial China to the present day, on Western fashion and design More

South Africa Begins New Love Affair With Vinyl Records

Enthusiasts say the 'rebirth' of vinyl is resulting in a rebirth of music in South Africa More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Mass Grave Exposes Entrenched Trafficking in Thailandi
X
May 05, 2015 5:50 PM
Police in southern Thailand have found two more camps believed to have held human trafficking victims -- one containing a buried skeleton. This comes just days after officials announced arrests in connection with the grisly discovery of 26 bodies in a mass grave at another location. Officials suspect as many as 400 mostly ethnic Rohingya from Myanmar were being held for ransom at the remote camp near the Malaysian border. Steve Sandford reports on developments in the case.
Video

Video Mass Grave Exposes Entrenched Trafficking in Thailand

Police in southern Thailand have found two more camps believed to have held human trafficking victims -- one containing a buried skeleton. This comes just days after officials announced arrests in connection with the grisly discovery of 26 bodies in a mass grave at another location. Officials suspect as many as 400 mostly ethnic Rohingya from Myanmar were being held for ransom at the remote camp near the Malaysian border. Steve Sandford reports on developments in the case.
Video

Video Russia's 'Victory Day' Glory Over Nazis Overshadowed by Ukraine

ussia is preparing to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, known since the Soviet era as “The Great Patriotic War,” with a massive parade on May 9th of military hardware and millions of medals handed out to veterans or their relatives. But critics say the Soviet-style display of power and nationalism overshadows tragic scars during and after the war that still influence politics and foreign policy, especially in the current Ukraine crisis.
Video

Video WWII Anniversary Brings Old Friends and New Worries

The 70th anniversary of the end of World War II has special significance, with Russia becoming more assertive in Ukraine and sending its military planes to the edges of western countries’ airspace. Changes in the geostrategic balance and the transatlantic relationship are felt across the continent, not least in German towns that have hosted U.S. military bases since the defeat of Nazi Germany. VOA’s Al Pessin visited Schweinfurt, Germany, where a large base closed last year.
Video

Video Abraham Lincoln Funeral Re-created for 150th Civil War Anniversary

Over the last four years, commemorative events to mark the 150th anniversary of the U.S. Civil War have brought thousands of visitors to battlefields and historic landmarks across the country. As VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports from the Midwest state of Illinois, the final event in the Civil War's sesquicentennial honors the final journey home of the slain American President, Abraham Lincoln.
Video

Video Campaign Raises Money to 'Uncuff' Journalists

Beginning Sunday – World Press Freedom Day – the Committee to Protect Journalists, a private U.S. group, is launching a campaign to bring attention to their plight and encourage efforts to free them. Deborah Block reports.
Video

Video Volunteers Pull Together to Aid Baltimore Riot Victims

Calm has returned to Baltimore, Maryland, after authorities lifted an overnight curfew imposed almost a week ago to stem the rioting that followed the funeral of Freddie Gray - the 25-year-old black man who died of spinal injuries suffered while in police custody. Six police officers, three of them African-American, have been charged in connection with his death. Baltimore is now trying to get back to normal, in part with the help of volunteers who responded to calls to help those in the city'
Video

Video From Aleppo To Berlin: Band of Brothers Escapes Civil War

Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have fled the civil war in their country and journeyed to Europe by boat across the Mediterranean. It is a terrifying ordeal with dangers at every turn. A group of Syrian brothers and their friends describe their ordeal as they try to reach Germany. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports. ...
Video

Video Rural Nepal Suffers Brunt of Quake’s Devastation

Nepal is still coming to grips with the full extent of the devastation and misery caused by last Saturday’s magnitude 7.8 earthquake. Some of the hardest-hit communities have been cut off by landslides making it difficult to assess the precise toll. A VOA News crew has been among the first to reach a few of the smaller, remote communities. Correspondent Steve Herman reports from the Sindhupolchak district, east of Kathmandu, which suffered greatly in Nepal’s worst quake in more than 80 years.
Video

Video Obama Praises Work of 3 Immigrant Journalists

President Barack Obama met with three immigrant journalists at the White House Friday to praise them for their work ahead of World Press Freedom Day, May 3. In attendance: Dieu Cay (his pen name) a blogger from Vietnam recently released from prison; Lily Mengesha from Ethiopia who was harassed and detained for exposing the marrying off of young girls as child brides, and Fatima Tlisova, an ethnic Circassian from the North Caucasus region of Russia, who works for VOA's Russian Service.
Video

Video Middle East Atheist Channel Defies Taboo

In Egypt, a deeply religious country in a deeply religious region, atheism is not only taboo, it is dangerous. It is sometimes even criminal to publicly declare nonbelief. Despite the danger, one group of activists is pushing back with a new online channel that defends the right not to believe. VOA’s Heather Murdock reports.
Video

Video Nepal Quake Survivors Tell Their Stories

Against all hope, rescuers have found a few more survivors of the devastating earthquake that hit Nepal last Saturday. Mountain climbers and hikers trapped in remote places also have been airlifted to safety, and aid is finally reaching people in the areas closest to the quake's epicenter. Survivors and rescuers are now recounting their experience. Zlatica Hoke has this story.
Video

Video Lessons for Germany, Europe Remain on Anniversary of WWII's End

The 70th anniversary of the end of World War II will be marked May 8-9 in all European countries except Germany, which lost the war. How is the war viewed there, and what impact is it still having? From Berlin, VOA’s Al Pessin reports.
Video

Video Nepal Town Destroyed By Quake Counts Itself Lucky

Foreign search teams on Wednesday began reaching some of the communities outside Kathmandu that suffered worse damage than Nepal’s capital from last Saturday’s massive earthquake. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman is in Sankhu - a town of about 10,000 people - where there is relief the death toll is not higher despite widespread destruction.
Video

Video Somali Hotel Chain Owner Strives to Make a Difference

Many in the Somali diaspora are returning home to make a new life despite the continuing risks. Since 2011 when a military campaign against Al-Shabab militants began making progress, members of the diaspora community have come back to open hospitals, schools, hotels, restaurants and other businesses. Abdulaziz Billow in Mogadishu profiles the owner of a chain of hotels and restaurants who is helping to bring change to the once-deadly Somali capital.
Video

Video Child Migrants Cross Mediterranean Alone, Face Unknown Future

Among the thousands of migrants making the deadly journey by boat to Europe, there are unaccompanied girls and boys. Some have been sent by relatives to earn money; others are orphaned or fleeing war. From a shelter for young migrants in the Sicilian town of Caltagirone, VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.

Poll: Baltimore Police Charged

Poll archive

VOA Blogs