Refugee camps are a mistake - UN

By Karen Breytenbach and Anel Powell

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is willing and able to assist the government in dealing with the mass displacement of refugees, but it has not yet been approached for help.

The organisation also does not agree with Cape Town's establishment of camps for displaced people.

Arvin Gupta, a senior UNHCR protection officer, said the UNHCR did not agree with the City of Cape Town that those displaced by the violence should be held at camps across the city, but also realised the immediate return to the communities they had to flee from was far from ideal.

Lawyers have said the camps are unconstitutional.

Cape Town Mayor Helen Zille said last night the city would "warmly welcome the UN to bring its international expertise and massive resources to help us deal with this crisis, and would appreciate resources and venues from provincial government, churches and NGOs".

She praised civil society for its efforts.

"We must all work together to handle this crisis.

"The city's resources are stretched to the limit," Zille said.

Asked by refugee leaders at a briefing at UCT if the UN would step in to help those displaced, Gupta said that as a sovereign country South Africa had the option to invite international bodies to help it deal with this "humanitarian tragedy", but had so far chosen to rely on its own resources.

Gupta met several civil society organisations and representatives of refugee groups at the UCT Law Faculty yesterday before visiting the Youngsfield Military Base in Wetton.

He also privately met Premier Ebrahim Rasool before flying back to Pretoria. He met Zille on Monday.

Gupta said the UNHCR would like to be "the voice" of civil society and the affected foreigners in relaying their needs and concerns to the three levels of government - local, provincial and national.

He said the UN was setting aside "a huge amount of money" to fund relief initiatives here.

Interested and affected parties had to tell the UN what they needed, he said, so that it could make resources for assistance available to its partners, including the Cape Town Refugee Centre (CTRC) and UCT Law Clinic's Refugee Rights Project.

The massive displacement of foreigners in South Africa, including legitimate refugees, economic migrants and illegal immigrants, was "quite complex" and unprecedented in scale, Gupta said.

He said the UN usually either helped people to return to their home countries, assisted with reintegration into their host societies or, least commonly, helped governments relocate people to a third country. He advised that only 0.5 percent of all refugees in the world are officially relocated to another country, under specific circumstances, and cases usually took "many years to process".

In the current situation it would probably be best if people were able to stay and "regain the protection of the state", he said.

"The state must exercise its responsibility to see to it that people are safe," he said.

Although there was large-scale loss of property, there were fortunately very few casualties in Cape Town, possibly thanks to preparedness of individuals and the authorities, he said.

He praised civil society for its efforts since last week.

Speaking about his meeting with Zille, Gupta said he had raised concerns about conditions at the city's safety camps.

He said the city had "gone against the wishes" of other agencies and levels of government by placing people in camps, but would not comment further on the political intricacies of the situation.

He said he was concerned that thousands would soon be "cramped together", that people were being "isolated in distant locations" and that the tents were "not suitable".

He said he was assured by the city that teams of mediators would go into communities to convince locals to allow ejected foreigners back.

Other experts would also be working in the field to bring "normalcy", he said.

Gupta was also concerned about the recent relocation of the Home Affairs office in Cape Town to Nyanga, where foreigners could be targeted.

He suggested the establishment of temporary satellite Home Affairs offices in different locations, so that documentation lost in the attacks could be reissued.

Gupta said the UN was in favour of a moratorium on deportations and the temporary "regularisation" (treatment as citizens) of all those affected. However, he made clear he was not advocating avoiding customs and immigration control.

The CTRC's Christina Henda said it was "high time civil society and the UNHCR found out from government if a relief fund would be set up" for those who had lost all their belongings.

"It is not known if government is setting up a relief fund, but all international agencies have raised that point," Gupta said.

When Gupta had to leave for Youngsfield, several refugees still wanted to ask questions and a heated exchange erupted.

Later, Gupta was welcomed and shown around Youngsfield by the camp commander Colonel Pieter Kobbie, where he was told about conditions.

Several foreigners crowded around Gupta, asking what the UN would do to help.

Many complained to the Cape Times that there were no mattresses, blankets, shower facilities, too little food (particularly halaal) and that many sick people and about 20 pregnant women needed medical attention. They said about 50 people slept in small tents, with over 1 500 staying in a camp for 700.

Many said they did not want to live in the camp, but would like to resettle abroad.

Kobbie said he was concerned about cold weather and appealed to the public for raincoats, umbrellas, blankets, mattresses, canned food, sanitary items, nappies, warm clothes, especially for the children, plastic wash basins and laundry services.

A negotiable curfew of 7pm was set to ensure that everyone was safe and accounted for.

"It's not a concentration camp. We're doing our best to make it as comfortable as possible," he said.

Wilfred Johannes-Solomons, head of the city's disaster management, said it felt compelled to respond to the refugees' needs and had done so, providing "the appropriate services" and complying with the "full letter of the law" in its management of the situation.

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