The deaths by suffocation in a closed container truck in February of eight Ethiopians travelling through Mozambique has highlighted the little-publicized dangers that asylum-seekers trying to reach South Africa face. Also in February 50 Somali migrants and a Tanzanian captain died after a ship sank off the coast of northern Mozambique.
South Africa hosts hundreds of thousands of refugees, including, it is believed, thousands of LGBT Africans fleeing repressive societies and regimes. South Africa grants refugee status on the basis of sexual orientation. 1.5 - 3 million Zimbabweans now live in South Africa. It has the most asylum seekers in the world, 222,000 applications in 2009, with a backlog of 400,000.
The South African refugee support group People Against Suffering Oppression and Poverty (PASSOP) announced a new programme 6 May "in light of the increasing number of 'sexual refugees'." It will provide support and advocacy in partnership with LGBTI rights organisations.
"The asylum application process is fraught with problems and many LGBTI people are turned away unjustly," PASSOP say.
"Moreover, those who are granted status still often face discrimination and harassment in their new communities in South Africa. When xenophobia is compounded with homophobia, it leaves many gay and transgender people in conditions not unlike those in the countries they fled in the first place."In May 2008 a series of xenophobic riots left 41 African refugees dead and 21 South African citizens. More attacks followed a year later. There were allegations that the pogroms were promoted by local politicians, though both the ANC and the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) have spoken out against xenophobia.
*Sipho Mvelase a gay man who is a South African citizen told SABC last year that the riots cost him his two year relationship since his ex partner, originally from Zimbabwe, left him fearing for his life.
“He told me that he does not trust any South African and that he feels really unsafe around me. He was even reluctant to be seen with me in public since I am noticeably gay, fearing that he will suffer attacks both for being a foreigner and for being a homosexual. Having seen the images in the media of foreign people being burnt to death, he left me for good.”The eight asylum-seekers who died in the closed container truck were among a group of 26 young Ethiopian men who were trying to reach South Africa from the Maratane refugee camp in northern Mozambique.
The truck driver reportedly only realized that the eight had suffocated when he made a stop at Mocuba, seven hours after leaving the camp. Three others in the group had to be hospitalized. The truck driver was arrested.
The dangers for people fleeing the Horn of Africa and crossing the Gulf of Aden or the Red Sea to Yemen are well documented. But the risks for those heading southwards through East Africa or via Indian Ocean routes are equally substantial, according to Sanda Kimbimbi, of UNHCR in Pretoria.
In January, UNHCR received reports that eight Somali and three Ethiopian asylum-seekers had drowned off the coast of Mozambique. In May, last year, nine Somalis also drowned off Mozambique in the search for safety.
The dangers were highlighted in a report published in April by UNHCR and Oxford University's Refugee Studies Centre and entitled: 'In Harms Way: The Irregular Movement of Migrants to Southern Africa from the Horn and Great Lakes Regions.'
Mozambique's Maratane camp is a stopping point for many on the journey southwards. Almost 11,000 Somali and Ethiopian asylum-seekers arrived at the camp in the year up to January. Of these 6,660 were Somalis, while the remaining 4,325 were from Ethiopia. UNHCR estimates that 2,500 Ethiopians headed towards South Africa from the Maratane camp last year.
Most refugees to South Africa arrive by bus after journeys that last weeks from countries such as Congo, Uganda, Burundi, Rwanda, Sudan, Somalia, and Tanzania, when they get close to the border, those without legal papers walk through the bush and swim across rivers to avoid being sent back.
Once there, as well increasing xenophobia, they face increasing legal sanctions. A judge in March criticised the Department of Home Affairs’ practice of arresting and detaining asylum seekers without verifying their status or allowing access to the refugee system. And a new immigration law could lead to genuine asylum seekers being rendered illegal and facing up to four years in jail.
Asylum seekers currently have 14 days after entering the country to go to a refugee reception centre and make a formal application for asylum. The new law reduces this period to five days.
Zimbabweans fleeing political violence are labeled undocumented "economic migrants" and many human rights monitors are convinced the South African government is committed to expelling as many Zimbabweans as possible, as soon as possible. At the beginning of this year the scale of undocumented Zimbabwean migrant applications for regularisation forced the government to delay mass repatriations.
HT: International Detention Coalition, adapted from article by Tina Ghelli for UNHCR