New fears of xenophobia send migrants fleeing in South Africa

New rumours of xenophobic reprisals after the World Cup send foreign migrants fleeing in South Africa. A new Amnesty International report slams endemic sexual violence in Kenyan slums. A Sri Lankan government minister begins hunger strike to protest UN inquiry into war crimes. Fresh bombings kill more Shia pilgrims in Baghdad. Defeated candidates and supporters protest over ‘rigged’ presidential elections in Guinea. New Australian PM Gillard backtracks on Timor-Leste refugee processing centre. All this and more in today’s briefing...
Josephine Whitaker
8 July 2010

Rumours of forthcoming xenophobic attacks have sent a wave of foreign migrant workers fleeing from Cape Town to rural areas in South Africa, or back to their home countries, according to reports emerging as the World Cup draws to a close.  

A Zimbabwean man was thrown from a train by fellow passengers in Cape Town on Tuesday, and a Somali trader was killed last week in the Cape Town township of Khayelitsha, sparking fears that the football tournament’s end could bring a rise of anti-foreign attacks in its wake.

Police spokesman Andre de Jager today publicly denied that the army was deployed to Ramaphosa, an informal settlement in Johannesburg, to quell xenophobic violence. According to de Jager, the police and national defence force were involved in a joint operation there for “normal crime prevention duties.”

The openSecurity verdict: Reports of the recent attacks in local press over the past few days have reignited fears that first emerged in the run-up to the World Cup, when a whispering campaign reportedly warned foreign migrants to leave South Africa before Sunday’s final or else face reprisal attacks.

Whether or not the rumours are true, migration analysts in South Africa are reporting that higher numbers of migrant workers than normal are on the move at present, indicating that foreign workers are taking them seriously. Ancelot Mbayagu, chairman of the African Disabled Refugee Organisation, estimates that the number of people fleeing in fear of xenophobic violence could be as high as 10,000. According to Braam Hanekom, director of a Cape Town-based non-governmental organisation that advocates migrant workers' rights, roughly five times the normal number of migrants are on the move, likening current movement to the December rush, when many foreign migrants go home for the Christmas period. Hanekom reports that “normally... there would be five or ten people waiting at the side of the road for lifts; now it’s sixty, seventy, or a hundred.”

However, other commentators are taking a more cautious approach. According to Mbayagu, foreign migrants are a very mobile population. This makes it difficult to ascertain reasons for population movement at any given time.  

Foreign migrants, who make up 2 million of South Africa’s population of 48 million, are often blamed for taking away jobs from South African nationals. Xenophobia has been a feature of life in South Africa since apartheid. Concerns over rising xenophobia have inevitably awoken memories of the rash of anti-foreign attacks that rocked much of South Africa in May 2008, leaving 62 dead and displacing over 100,000.

Despite rumours of xenophobic attacks after the end of the World Cup, Jacob Zuma’s government has said that it is trying to use the sporting event to ease anti-foreign sentiments. According to an AFP report, the Zuma government will today lay out plans to use the good spirits engendered by the World Cup to tackle rising xenophobia. Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa said that the “government is closely monitoring these xenophobic threats by faceless criminals whose desire is to create anarchy.”

Amnesty: Endemic violence against women in Kenyan slums

Female residents of the Kenyan capital’s sprawling slum settlements live in such fear of sexual violence that they cannot leave their homes to use communal toilets at night, says a new report from Amnesty International.

According to the report, “unable to leave their one-roomed houses after dark, many women in informal settlements resort to ‘flying toilets’ – using plastic bags thrown from the home to dispose of waste.” As a result, women and girls are at increased risk of contracting contagious diseases such as cholera and dysentery, while increasing the spread of these diseases.

Over half of Nairobi’s population of two million residents live in slums and shanty towns such as Kibera. Amnesty’s report criticises the Kenyan government’s inaction over informal settlements. It says that “because of decades of failure to recognise slums and informal settlements, planning laws and regulations are not enforced in these areas.” The report calls on the government to do more to make sure that landlords in slum settlements provide necessary sanitation facilities.

Sri Lanka minister begins hunger strike to protest UN inquiry

A Sri Lankan government minister has begun a hunger strike outside United Nations’ offices in Colombo, demanding that the UN cease its inquiry into alleged war crimes committed by government troops in final stages of its campaign against Tamil Tiger rebels in May last year.

Construction and Housing Minister Wimal Weerawansa’s high-profile protest comes after days of protests by hundreds of Sri Lankans angered by the work of the UN panel. The protests have disrupted “vital work”, according to UN sources.

Describing himself as “a citizen who loves his country”, and declaring that his stance is in defence of the soldiers who fought in the war, Wimal, who presided over the protest rallies of previous days, has said he is ready to lay down his life for them. Protestors outside the UN office, many of them Buddhist monks, also burned an effigy of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon.

Although the government denies all wrongdoing in its operations against the rebels, formally known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), both sides have been consistently accused by foreign governments and international organisations of committing war crimes. Over 7,000 civilians were killed during the final weeks of the war, which had been fought on and off since 1983, in which the government finally claimed victory over the rebels.

The government has promised to ensure that UN staff are able to access their offices, but has so far refused to grant visas to the UN advisory panel’s three appointed members, saying the inquiry violates the country’s national sovereignty.

Fresh bombings kill pilgrims in Baghdad

At least five people have been killed by bombs targeting Shia pilgrims in the Iraqi capital earlier today. According to official reports, a roadside bomb in eastern Baghdad killed four worshippers, while a car bomb in southern Baghdad killed at least one more. These attacks come just one day after suicide bombings elsewhere in the city killed at least forty Shia worshippers, and left over 100 injured.

Over one million Shia pilgrims are expected to defy the attacks and gather today at the shrine of Moussa al-Kadhim, one of twelve holy figures who defined the Shia faith, on the final day of a festival commemorating his death.

These sectarian attacks do not bode well for the ability of Iraqi security forces to protect the population. Iraqi forces took over from the American military one year ago, and confidence in their abilities remains low among the civilian population. Some commentators also fear that the attacks demonstrate the willingness of sectarian militants’ to exploit Iraq’s political vacuum and destabilise the country as American troops depart. Iraq has been without a government since elections in early March failed to produce clear a winner.

Guinea protests over ‘rigged’ elections

Thousands of people marched in the Guinean capital of Conakry on Monday, alleging fraud and vote rigging in first round presidential elections held last month. Police fired teargas on the 3,000 protestors, many of them women, who marched in front of the electoral commission and supreme court earlier this week.

Former prime minister Cellou Dalein Diallo won forty percent of the vote in the 27 June presidential polls, and will go forward to a run-off vote later this month against veteran opposition leader Alpha Condé, who won twenty percent of the vote. Turnout was an impressive 77 percent.   

Protestors claim to have evidence of electoral irregularities. Many of the original 24 candidates have also alleged vote rigging, and promise to bring complaints to the electoral commission. Third-placed Sidya Touré claims he was robbed of his rightful place in the run-off vote, while fourth-placed Lansana Kouyaté has also alleged fraud.  

Despite these allegations, the elections are seen by many commentators as a sign of hope, coming as they do after more than fifty years of military rule in Guinea. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon commended Guinea the day after polling closed for successfully staging the country’s first democratic elections since independence from French rule in 1958.

In September last year, troops following orders from junta leader Moussa Dadis Camara went on a rampage of killing and rape after being ordered to attack civilians protesting against the junta’s plans to contest democratic elections. Over 150 civilians were left dead. Three months later, Camara was shot by an aide and evacuated to Morocco for treatment. After a string of diplomatic meetings chaired by president of Burkina Faso, a formal, twelve-point statement was produced promising to return Guinea to civilian rule within six months.

Gillard backtracks on Timor-Leste refugee processing centre

The new Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard appears to have backed down over recently-announced plans to open a refugee processing centre on the pacific island state of Timor-Leste.

Although Timor-Leste’s leaders said they would be “open” to discussing Gillard’s plans, President Jose Ramos-Horte said “I wouldn’t want Timor-Leste to become an island prison for people fleeing violence”. Meanwhile, Deputy Prime Minister Jose Luis Guterres voiced concerns that his tiny, impoverished nation would not have the capacity to deal with asylum seekers.

However, in a recent interview on national television, Gillard denied that she had committed to a location for a refugee processing centre, after the plans received widespread criticism. Gillard has been accused by opposition members of failing to properly consult with Timor-Leste before announcing the plans.

According to Gillard, processing centres would thwart people traffickers. Australia currently sends refugees and asylum seekers to a processing centre on Christmas Island, but overcrowding at this centre is forcing more and more refugees to be sent to the mainland for processing. Under the plans, unauthorised arrivals in Australia would be taken there, under the auspices of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, while their credentials were checked. Afterwards, those granted refugee status would be sent to host countries in the Pacific, not only to Australia.

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