Coronavirus #Lockdown Op-Ed

Being a refugee during the pandemic

By Eyasu Mengistu 29 April 2020

African foreign nationals peer out of the window of a bus as they are moved by South African police from the Central Methodist Church in Cape Town where they had taken refuge since October 2019, fearing xenophobic attacks. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Nic Bothma)

I am anonymous. I am writing to highlight the main problems of refugees in South Africa and the impact of this lockdown. I am a woman and an activist from Ethiopia and I have been in South Africa since 2008. This is all my personal experience and it includes my opinions.

As we all know, thousands of documented and – due to the corrupt system of Home Affairs – several thousand undocumented asylum seekers and refugees reside in South Africa.

The majority are from Africa and some are from Asia. The main reason we leave our country of origin is due to war, political instability, being scared for our lives and the threat of imminent arrest due to religious and political opinions.

Many also come to South Africa due to economic problems.

By law, as we can see on the asylum permit, point number 8 says “Any asylum seeker or refugee has the right to work and study”. Yet in practice, there are no opportunities for asylum seekers or refugees to get hired in public or the government sector. This includes many private companies… even if you stay in the country for more than 20 years.

In my own experience, I know lots of people who stayed for more than 10 to 15 years, but still remain on a three- or six-month renewal asylum permit.

To be a citizen in South Africa is a dream for most of us who know how the system works. On top of that, the system itself is designed systematically to discriminate against fellow African brothers and sisters.

You cannot see a single journalist from Ghana or a singer from Cameroon or the DRC or an actor or TV personality, or someone in the press/media.

We are systematically excluded from any kind of activity or association or free expression of voice. Publicly labelled “foreigners” and other names so that the public will have xenophobic feelings towards us and attack and hate against us. We are treated as if we are living in a different world. No one talks about the rights and dignity of asylum seekers. The reason most South Africans hate fellow Africans in general in my opinion is due to the injustice of their government systems.

I myself have witnessed that.

This article is the first time I get the chance to freely express how I feel about staying in RSA. Since the beginning of the lockdown no one, including the President, has mentioned help or assistance for asylum seekers or refugees.

The majority of us are unemployed. Some of us are employed in small garment shops as a cheap labour assistant, some are street vendors, cleaners, gardeners and waitresses. Some Ethiopians and Somalian community members were contributing some money from their own pocket and savings to show humanity and donate to some refugees, including locals, with groceries. But since the numbers in need are many it is unimaginable to reach other than a few lucky people – besides, we all are God’s creatures and equal by nature but it seems the government does not see this. Some NGOs and other concerned organisations including local people, do help and support their fellow African brothers and sisters. 

Currently, we refugees in South Africa are suffering to the point we cannot even buy tissues. Some of us are sleeping in the streets, looking for help or shelter, with children and no money to even buy food.

During the lockdown, the bank has frozen many refugees’ bank accounts because our permits have expired, as the Refugee Reception Offices are closed and we cannot renew our three- or six-month permits.

The accounts can only be opened again if you have a new permit. But permit offices are closed, so you cannot get access to your money.

This means the refugee has to wait for the next unknown months until the coronavirus is over to renew permits and present this to the bank to get access to the account. It means we will not be able to pay rent, buy food, pay school fees, buy masks or sanitiser and some refugees are not even able to go to the clinic or hospital if they or a family member gets sick.

On top of that several fellow brothers and sisters have been brutally abused by law enforcement forces for walking in the street to go to the shop to buy necessary products; even at roadblocks several have been arrested for no reason and some for refusing to pay a bribe.

As a refugee community, since there is no way or system for us to communicate with one another, we are unable even to support one another. Thousands of children and elders are suffering and becoming hopeless due to hunger and shelter. As family or households, it is difficult to practise physical distancing as we share everything that we get together.

This means our health is at risk.

I am sharing a room with my friend and I am struggling to buy food or pay my rent and other needs. We, refugees, are denied our basic rights like the right to get access to be employed with our skills. We struggle to get access to higher education. We are excluded from any benefits even during this time of the world pandemic.

I believe we all are equal and we deserve to be treated equally and the world is enough if we love and care for one another regardless of our background, colour or sexual orientation. In my opinion, the government and other public sector and locals should stop this brutal ignorance and count us as fellow humans and the system of discrimination and injustice should be replaced by justice and humanity. DM/MC

Eyasu Mengistu is not the writer’s real name. Maverick Citizen knows the identity of the writer.

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