One thousand five hundred people now live in canvas tents on a football field-sized patch of dirt. On another field a few hours away, 200 people sleep each night with no blankets and no roof.
These are the situations at two refugee camps outside of Cape Town, South Africa. The first camp is De Doorns. The second is Blue Waters. They tell the story of refugees in South Africa.
In May 2008 violence erupted against foreigners in townships in South Africa. Thousands fled their homes for refugee camps throughout the nation. The Western Cape then established the ‘Blue Waters Internally Displaced Persons Camp” to house the displaced.
In a separate incident in November 2009, at the small farming community if De Doorns, two hours outside of Cape Town, more xenophobic violence in the townships forced resident Zimbabweans out of their tin-roofed homes.
Most of the refugees originally fled Zimbabwe, where once vibrant cities are now ghost towns. I visited the tourist mecca of Victoria Falls, where the shops are closed, the windows shuttered and the building interiors gutted. It is not an abandoned ghost town. People do still live there.
Zimbabwe is a country with great potential. It is actually quite safe to travel to and walk around in. Its people are friendly, peaceful and innovative, its cities have decent infrastructure for both business and tourism and some of its public utilities still generally work.
Bulawayo, for example, is a beautiful city full of wide avenues, originally designed for horse and buggy. ATMs, though they are inoperable for foreigners, are everywhere.
You can even take some trains, cockroaches and all.
The poor conditions for many in Zimbabwe are perhaps the best explanation for why many Zimbabwean people have left their country. Even working in a refugee camp or as farm laborers, they have the opportunity to earn more than in Zimbabwe.
About 1,500 live in tents on a rugby field in De Doorns. They are surrounded by barbed wire and work 12 hours per day for $6 to $7 a day on farms. By the end of the month they will be out of work once the farms shut down for the winter. The UN has abandoned the site. The local government periodically shuts down water access. The portable toilets are absolutely filthy and have not been cleaned in a month.
More tents are locked up in a government building nearby and are not being removed for use. There is no access to proper medical care. Prostitution is the most recent development, probably to supplement wages. Most children have not been to school since entering the camp. Cooking is done mainly with propane tanks, so the canvas tents routinely burn down.
The Non-Governmental Organization PASSOP the Afrikaans word for beware campaigns for refugees’ rights and has attempted to monitor the conditions in the camp. I volunteer for PASSOP and have visited both camps. For unknown reasons, PASSOP has been recently forbidden from entering the De Doorns camp. No one in government is taking responsibility for the decision.
The Zimbabweans are beneficial to the farms who have deep influence with local officials because they will work for less than South Africans. The Zimbabweans, most of whom have at least a high school education, are the product of Zimbabwe’s once enviable education system. The nation still has Africa’s highest literacy rate of 91.2 percent, according to the 2009 United Nations Human Development Report.
The local government knows that if PASSOP cannot file a human rights report, then there is little that the NGO can do about the situation without a report and the quantitative data that goes along with it.
‘Blue Waters Internally Displaced Persons Camp,” officially closed Monday, April 6, when the High Court in Western Cape Province signed an eviction order.
About 200 people still live at Blue Waters. They refuse to move, saying that the surrounding townships are too dangerous. The fear of death for them there is too great. Some even hold the fantastic hope that they will be transferred to Canada.
No one really knows where those who have left have gone. Many are likely homeless. So far the authorities have been judicious with the refugees at Blue Waters; the police, who do not seem to take pleasure in their task, have not yet forcibly removed them with tear gas.
Because the camp technically no longer exists, the UNCHR has left the site, and the remaining refugees have not been allowed to construct structures for shelter. Only two small tin shacks exist. The people must sleep on the ground under the sky. On Monday, the Cape Argus newspaper reported the discovery of 45 evicted children huddling in a public bathroom for shelter. PASSOP was forbidden to give blankets to the refugees because it might encourage them to remain.
These camps are most wretched places, and they have no forseeable positive solutions.
That is the nature of the situation.
Otis is a member of the class of 2011.