Refugees return to limbo status at Wingfield camp citing resettlement issues
Families refuse to return to communities in Cape Town or to go back to their countries of origin.
About 25 refugees who had accepted reintegration into Cape Town communities have changed their minds and returned to the Wingfield campsite where they were housed. There are now about 168 people in the camp, and no sign of an answer to their demands.
The refugees are part of a group who were involved in protests in 2019 outside the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) offices in Cape Town, demanding to be resettled in another country, citing problems with xenophobia and documentation in South Africa. The protesting refugees were relocated to camps in Wingfield and Bellville as the Covid pandemic gripped the country, and some were deported.
The UNHCR offered those in the camps reintegration into communities or repatriation to their country of origin. Those who chose to reintegrate were given money to cover rent for three months and a month’s food assistance by the UNHCR.
But since the programme came to an end, some of them say they have not been able to pay rent or feed their families. They also have problems with documents and crime. They accused the police of failing to assist them.
Laura Padoan, spokesperson for UNHCR, could not confirm that several people had returned to the Wingfield site. She told GroundUp that the UN Refugee Agency is no longer directly engaged on-site.
Daff Milambo from the Democratic Republic of Congo is one of the 24 people who returned to Wingfield. He had surgery after a car accident in 2004 and this year has been having problems with his leg. He uses elbow crutches.
He said after he left Wingfield he had moved to Mitchells Plain. “I was helping people carry luggage and touting customers by the long-distance buses in Cape Town. It wasn’t a proper job. Most of the time business was quiet. I had to scavenge for food for my family.”
Then, he said, he had been robbed of his refugee status document. “It was still valid and expiring this year in November.” He said he had applied online and followed up but without success.
“How can I work without papers?”
In September 2022, Milambo returned to Wingfield. “After we left here life was very tough and even here it is still difficult.”
He said he had written to UNHCR before returning to Wingfield. “They know that we are back. UNHCR is the only father and mother who can help refugees.”
“Our wish is to have UNHCR officials come here. They need to talk to people here individually, including single mothers, and open files so that people can follow up on their cases. There are people who are tired of this situation who want repatriation. As for me, I can’t go back to DRC because I ran away from persecution. I went back to the community, and it didn’t work out for me.”
“Very soon it’s going to be elections. Xenophobia will start again as politicians will use foreigners as a scapegoat for the government’s failure and we will be attacked. Our wish is to have UNHCR come here and talk to us individually.”
Another refugee, Emeka Mazimwe, said refugees were not safe. “Even at the police stations we are ill-treated. When we go to Home Affairs someone plays with their phone instead of serving you. You stand for hours without getting help.”
Andeka Wungudi Gedeon, who is one of those who remained at the camp, said not counting the 25 people who have returned, there are 143 people in Wingfield: 72 adults, 67 children and four babies. A few children are at school in Kensington and Maitland. There are five mobile toilets and a generator which works from 6pm to 12am.
Gedeon said the refugees provided their own security. “Women watch the place from 7pm till 2am and then men take over till the morning around 7am sitting at the fire and patrolling the yard.”
He said an official from Home Affairs had visited them on 3 April but no one from UNHCR had come.
“UNHCR officials don’t come here any more and there’s no communication between us. There’s no support from UNHCR. People who accepted reintegration came back here worse off than they left. Nothing changed, they are also struggling with documentation just like us.”
He said the refugees were willing to go to another African country. “Any place where it is safe.”
Padoan said the site was not intended to be permanent and was not appropriate for families. She said UNHCR urged people living there to return to their communities.
UNHCR had assisted over 800 people with reintegration and nearly 70 with voluntary repatriation. “Resettlement to a third country is a very limited option for refugees worldwide, is subject to quotas offered by receiving countries and is not offered on a group basis. UNHCR is not in a position to arrange transfers of people to other countries in the region; this would require refugees to obtain visas on an individual basis from the country they wish to travel to.
“We do not wish to see refugees, particularly the children, living in these unsanitary conditions, which is why we are urging refugees to either reintegrate into communities or once in their communities, to take up the offer of voluntary repatriation if they are interested in this solution.”
Ward 56 councillor Cheslyn Steenberg (Patriotic Alliance) said living conditions at the camp were “appalling”. But, he said, alternative accommodation had been offered and some had accepted and some had refused. “This matter now rests with the DHA,” he said.
GroundUp sent questions to the Home Affairs spokespeople on 12 April and did not get a response. Phone calls were made again on 13 April to Siya Qoza, David Hlabane and Bongi Gwala but were not answered. DM
First published by GroundUp.