By Irene Kuppan
Refugees living in Durban say they are being "treated like animals" in the country where they hoped to find safety.
The refugees and various groups representing them raised this concern among other issues when they met the Minister of Home Affairs, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula on Thursday during the Durban Refugee Service Providers' Network Workshop.
Speaking on behalf of Burundian women and children refugees, Mukeshimana Bellancine said: "We don't know if we were taken into South Africa as human beings or as animals."
Bellancine raised concerns about the poor treatment of refugees by state institutions, especially the police.
"Since 2001 we have lost at least 70 refugees' (lives) due to South African atrocities. When there is a problem and we call the police, they don't turn up because we are refugees. When police do come to our home, they mistreat us. They take our money and valuables and if we complain, they accuse us of selling drugs."
She said in some instances police would tear up documentation that confirmed they were refugees, yet police would disappear without a word if they were given money.
Saleh Hashi, representing refugees from Somalia, said South Africans should realise refugees were here because they needed a place of safety.
"We left Somalia because of the civil war. South Africans need to understand what we are going through," she said.
"We left our homes behind and our country; we are just guests here and as soon as our country is stable we will leave. When we leave South Africa, we need to take good memories with us."
She said Somalis, in particular, had been targeted and killed in South Africa recently.
"Somali refugees are being attacked and killed in the Eastern and Western Cape. All we are doing is trying to make a living, but the South African people are making it clear they don't want us here by killing us. We left our homes because we were not safe there, and now the same things are happening to us here," said Hashi.
Among other issues raised by the refugees was that very few people were willing to offer them accommodation, so they were forced to cram into buildings with very poor facilities.
They also said their children were victimised and beaten up at school because of their nationality and because it took so long to get proper documentation, such as their identity documents, many had to settle for jobs as car guards.
Addressing refugees, Mapisa-Nqakula said: "Women constitute somewhere in the region of 45 percent to 55 percent of the refugee total in most of the regions where statistics are available. By ignoring their situation we run the risk of being indifferent to the suffering of a great majority of refugees."
She said the government was particularly concerned about refugee women and children becoming victims of abuse in a place of safety.
"At times this abuse is at the hands of the very people who are supposed to be providing them with protection, such as the police and soldiers in countries of the refugee's destination."
She said despite the fact that no specific statistics were available for South Africa, refugees in this country were targeted by criminals and found it difficult to integrate into society.
"Integration faces its own challenges, given high levels of poverty and competition for resources and service, as well as also being compounded by xenophobia and unacceptable levels of intolerance and prejudice," said Mapisa-Nqakula.
"These at times have resulted in acts of violence and other criminality directed at refugees."
She said that the Refugees Act of 1996 would be amended this year and that would provide more efficient refugee management in the country.