When does Rosie the refugee become South African? Never?

Rosie” was born in 1987 in Angola, during the civil war. In 1997, her father brought her and her three siblings to Cape Town, where he dumped them in a shelter and disappeared. At the time, Rosie’s siblings’ ages ranged from five to eight years old. Rosie has lived in South Africa ever since. She spent ten years in Angola, eighteen years in South Africa, but she’s still a `refugee.’ The war has ended, and so Rosie and her siblings are now liable for deportation, or not. “We don’t know Angola as ‘home’. We want to get student visas so we can stay here. We don’t have anything to go back to,” Rosie explains.

Last Friday, various reports circulated claiming that the South African government was set to deport as many as 2000 Angolan refugees, as well as a smaller number of refugees from Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone. Over the weekend, the State leapt into action, explaining that it “is firmly committed to ensuring the fulfilment of its international obligations towards refugees and asylum seekers in terms of its ratification of the relevant international protocols.” Which means less than nothing.

Angolan community leader Jao Kaputo has been in South Africa since 1994. He explains the difficulties many Angolans face in the various registration processes, “Our homes were bombed. We lost everything, including documents. We are dispersed; our mothers went their own directions, and our fathers the other direction. As a result some of us are not documented, including children born here, and cannot apply for birth certificates.”

Pedro Nzazi” has been a refugee in South Africa for 20 consecutive years: “Starting over in Angola after 20 years of staying here will be very difficult. I have children at university and others still going to school. If I relocate to Angola, what will happen to them? Many Angolans, whose permits expired already are illegal, may be deported and they cannot access their bank accounts. I know five people who gave up and went back to Angola. They intend to apply for permits from there, but I am worried they might not be successful because of the strict immigration regulations gazetted on 22 May 2014.”

In 1989, Jesus Espirito Do Santos was born in Angola to a Congolese woman, Suzan Ntoto, and her Angolan husband. In 1992, Suzan Ntoto brought her three-year-old Jesus Espirito Do Santos to South Africa and applied for refugee status. In 2009, Ntoto died, and her South African employer offered to adopt Do Santos, but couldn’t because Do Santos couldn’t produce his birth certificate. In 2013, Do Santos, who speaks only English and Afrikaans, and not a word of Portuguese, faced “repatriation.”

Irene Kainda’s story is the same. She came to South Africa as a child refugee, grew up in Cape Town. She and her brother, Felipe, thrived, despite having been abandoned by their mother. And now she faces “repatriation” to a country she does not know that speaks a language she does not speak.

Everything about this is predictably wrong. One could argue that, while the civil war has ended, peace in Angola is still aspirational. For example, the past three months saw activists imprisoned for membership in a book club, and then their mothers were arrested. One could point to the gross injustice of Operation Fiela – Reclaim, an anti-immigrant sweep designed to “restore order” after the March – April Afrophobic, xenophobic pogroms in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng. South Africa’s firm commitment to the strangers in its midst under brutal attack has been to brutally attack those strangers. While the courts have temporarily stopped many of the deportations, the arrests continue, and the brutality intensifies in the Lindela Repatriation Centre. Here’s Fiela: a mountain of warrantless searches and improper arrests, deployment of the military as police, overly long stays in detention, evisceration of due process rights, intensification of xenophobia and Afrophobia. This does not restore or reclaim anything good. It merely terrorizes any South African-based, low to moderate income African born outside of South Africa.

The worst, though, is the willful imposition of inhumanity, the broad-brush practice of State terrorism and violence against those who came seeking succor and have actually thrived. The State will clothe its terrorism in legal language, but it remains terrorism. In South Africa today, what are the borders of being-a-refugee? When does one stop being a stranger and become simply a neighbor? Irene Kainda, Jesus Espirito Do Santos, “Pedro Nzazi”, Jao Kaputo, “Rosie”, and thousands of others want to know.

 

 

(Photo Credit: GroundUp)

Welcome Irene Kainda as a neighbor, not as a stranger

What are the borders of being-a-refugee? When does one stop being a stranger and become simply a neighbor? Irene Kainda wants to know.

Irene Kainda is 21 years old. She lives in Cape Town. She has lived in Cape Town continuously since 1998. She used to live with her mother and her brother, Felipe, who is two years younger than Irene. In 2006, Irene and Felipe’s mother abandoned them. The two children spent three years in a homeless shelter, and then were taken in by some good people. Now Irene is in college and so is her brother, thanks to Irene’s hard work. In many ways, this is, or could be, a tale of great promise, a tale of a young woman who keeps on keeping on.

Irene and Felipe came to South Africa as refugees, and there’s the rub. The civil war in Angola is officially at an end, and the situation is both improved and improving: “Angola is a nation of bright minds, brilliant writers, exceptional musicians, and a civil society that, almost 11 years after war’s end, is ready to have its voice heard.” Of course, there’s much room for improvement, but that’s true everywhere.

Recently, the South African government decided to `encourage’ Angolan refugees to return `home’. The `invitation’ to `apply for repatriation’ is universal. Everyone has to `apply’. Hundreds of thousands of people, call them Angolans who have sought refugee status, live in South Africa. Many of them have lived there for twenty years. For many of them, South Africa is the only home they really know. Irene Kainda notes, “I came to South Africa when I was seven. I don’t remember Angola, I don’t know where I am from and who or where my family there is.”

What are the borders of being-a-refugee, and how does gender inflect those borders? Women and girl refugees haunt the world. According to the most recent UNHCR Global Trends Report, at the end of 2011, 42.5 million people were displaced. Of them, 15.2 million were refugees. Women and girls made up 49 per cent of persons “of concern to UNHCR.” According to the UNHCR, 48 percent of refugees are women and girls. Further, “in 2011, UNHCR submitted some 92,000 refugees for resettlement. Ten per cent of all submissions were for women and girls at risk, the highest percentage of the last six years.” The next UNHCR report comes out in a month.

The civil war in Angola saw massive, programmatic and widely acknowledged violence against women and girls, and yet the processes and structures concerning demobilization altogether avoided women and girls as a distinct group. Thus, no resources were dedicated to their specific needs. And now it looks like South Africa’s Department of Home Affairs will do the same, avoid any recognition of the specific situations of Angolan-born women and girls living in South Africa.

Meanwhile, more than one study has noted that xenophobia is the dark side of the new supposedly democratic South Africa: “Intolerance is extremely pervasive and growing in intensity and seriousness. Abuse of migrants and refugees has intensified and there is little support for the idea of migrant rights.” Sometimes the abuse was directed specifically at Angolan refugees in Cape Town: “The City of Cape Town, like many other cities, has seen a number of xenophobic attacks on foreigners…The most well-publicised conflicts have been those in Danoon, Doornbach in 2001 and in Joe Slovo Park in 2002. Perhaps the most publicised incident was in Joe Slovo Park, where four people were killed in clashes between Angolan refugees and South Africans.”

Irene Kainda is an Angolan-born young woman who has lived and grown up, and raised her younger brother, in Cape Town in a very particular historical period. She has labored through abandonment, homelessness, xenophobia, violence against women, and more. At every step of the way, she was supposed to fail, and take her younger brother down with her. Instead, she succeeded, and took her younger brother up with her. And her reward, if the South African government has its way, is to be shipped to a `homeland’ she doesn’t know?

That cannot be. The State cannot punish Irene Kainda who has spent almost all her life engaged in Cape Town in performing the labor of survival with dignity, hope, and humor. Rather than deport Irene Kainda, reform the State. Institute a statute of limitations on being-a-refugee. Take responsibility for being a haven. Stop treating Irene Kainda as a stranger and welcome her as a neighbor.

 

(Photo Credit:Mail & Guardian)