Relocation Process Exacerbates Trauma of Displaced People in South Africa

Valérie Batselaere/MSF
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MSF Alarmed by Lack of Protection of Foreign Nationals Affected by Recent Violence

Johannesburg/New York, June 2, 2008 – The international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) today expressed alarm at the process of relocation imposed on people displaced by recent violence in Johannesburg, South Africa. After living in unacceptable conditions for up to three weeks, the people displaced are now being relocated by the South African government—without proper access to information about their rights and options—to sites that are unprepared and insecure.

“Our patients have already been traumatized by the violence they have suffered and the abhorrent conditions of displacement,” said MSF nurse Bianca Tolboom. “They say they are being treated like animals, they are not given any information about where they are being taken, how long they will remain and what the plans are afterwards. They are paralyzed to make any kind of informed decision. This uncertainty only exacerbates their trauma.”

Preparation of sites for relocation started on Saturday, three weeks after the first eruption of violence in Johannesburg. Despite the concerns expressed by humanitarian actors about the conditions of the sites and the time frame of the process, relocation started on Sunday, June 1. There is no true freedom of movement for the displaced people, who are stuck between relocation to unsuitable sites and returning to their countries of origin, including those experiencing political unrest.  In addition, at this stage the sites are unsuitable for receiving the displaced people; basic conditions of shelter, water and sanitation are not met and protection is far from guaranteed.

“One of the sites is in a dusty old mine dump,” said Rachel Cohen, head of mission for MSF in South Africa. “This site in particular will be harmful to people’s health, especially those already suffering respiratory infections, the most common diagnosis among our patients. There are too few latrines, tents are too close together, and sharp drops make the grounds unsafe for children,” she said. “We have witnessed families being separated and have heard numerous reports of intimidation by security companies sub-contracted to ‘protect’ the displaced. People are telling us they feel trapped with nowhere to turn, and that everyone is failing to protect them – including UNHCR.”

MSF is concerned about reports from patients that many Zimbabweans affected by the violence may have gone into hiding within South Africa over the past weeks. Having run projects for Zimbabweans in Johannesburg and Musina, at the border with Zimbabwe, since 2007, MSF teams know that unrecognized refugees do not seek assistance due to fear of deportation. The lack of legal status increases their vulnerability and has a serious impact on access to health care for this group. 

Immediately following the eruptions of violence in Johannesburg, MSF provided emergency medical assistance to the displaced population. Over the following weeks, MSF mobile teams established a regular presence in 15 sites, treating more than 2,500 patients, and distributing blankets, hygiene kits, and plastic sheeting to the sites where the needs are most dire.

MSF has been present in South Africa since 1999, providing comprehensive HIV and TB care and treatment in Khayelitsha, Cape Town, and Lusikisiki, in Eastern Cape Province. Since December 2007, MSF has also been working in central Johannesburg and in Musina, at the Zimbabwean border, to provide Zimbabweans seeking refuge in South Africa with access to medical care. Following the recent violence and unrest, MSF has been providing assistance to the affected population in Cape Town and Johannesburg.