Xenophobic Violence In South Africa NPR's Scott Simon talks with Shenilla Mohamed of Amnesty International about refugees in South Africa who are asking to leave the country because of xenophobic violence.

Xenophobic Violence In South Africa

Xenophobic Violence In South Africa

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NPR's Scott Simon talks with Shenilla Mohamed of Amnesty International about refugees in South Africa who are asking to leave the country because of xenophobic violence.


Migrants in South Africa are asking the U.N. for help. For weeks, migrants have camped out in front of U.N. refugee offices asking for help to get out of South Africa. They say xenophobic violence has made it unsafe for them to stay. Wednesday, police in Cape Town arrested dozens of the refugees and asylum seekers. In Pretoria, local residents are seeking a court order to move that city's encampment. Shenilla Mohamed is the executive director of Amnesty International's South Africa office. She joins us from Johannesburg. Thanks so much for being with us.

SHENILLA MOHAMED: Nice to be on your show.

SIMON: Help us see these migrants as people. Who are they? Where are they from?

MOHAMED: Well, Scott, you know, many of the people come from Somalia, from the Democratic Republic of Congo, from places where conflict has driven them out. And South Africa's processing of asylum seekers and refugees is dysfunctional. And so they are unable to get the correct documentation that would provide them with the safety that they would get under any other system. And so their lives here are extremely difficult in a country that is already - has high levels of violence and intolerance.

SIMON: In recent years, there's been a lot of violence directed against refugees and immigrants, hasn't there?

MOHAMED: In 2008, we had a terrible outbreak of xenophobic violence. And since then, there's just these sporadic outbursts where refugees, migrants, asylum seekers are attacked. Often they are robbed. Many of them are murdered. And I think what has happened with them camping out outside the U.N. offices is they are really now wanting to genuinely leave the country because they fear that, you know, they're going to be killed, or something is going to happen.

SIMON: Where would they go?

MOHAMED: Well, this is the challenge, you know, because South Africa, despite what's happening, has very progressive laws. And unlike other African countries, where refugees and asylum seekers are kept in camps, in South Africa, they are actually integrated into the communities. And this has been a positive and a negative. The negative is that the locals resent the fact that they are there. They accuse them of taking jobs. And, you know, where would they go? I mean, you know, they've been asking to go to America. They've been asking to be sent to London, to Canada, but, you know, that is not in the control of neither the South African government nor the UNHCR.

SIMON: We will note, I guess, that South Africa's unemployment rate is about 29%. What about South Africa's political establishment and responsible public figures? Have they stepped forward?

MOHAMED: On the one hand, you have the president calling for South Africans to embrace their fellow Africans. On the other hand, you have the mayor of Johannesburg, Herman Mashaba, who has just recently resigned, attacking foreigners saying that, you know, they are using up all the health care, that they are a problem, that they are a menace. And then the most important thing, Scott, is that when there is criminality against foreign nationals, nobody is ever brought to the book. I mean there have been no prosecutions of attacks on foreigners. And so, you know, they live in a very vulnerable situation and that's, you know, why I think they've been asking to go home.

SIMON: Shenilla Mohamed of Amnesty International in Johannesburg, thanks so much for being with us.

MOHAMED: Thank you so much, Scott.


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