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10 Nov, 2008 03:57

Camp chaos: Africans who flee persecution, but find worse

South Africa has long been a destination of choice for asylum seekers from across the African continent. But instead of much-needed refuge, many are finding nothing but hostility and xenophobia.

Once a shelter for millions of Africans, today foreigners in South Africa face even harder times than those they abandoned in search of a better life.

In May, many people in multinational South African refugee camps were in fear of their lives. Riots across the country left more than 40 foreigners dead, several hundred injured, and some 25,000 without a home.

It was not the first time foreigners had been targeted but it was the first time in 15 years that the army had to be called in to keep the peace.

“It was six o'clock in the morning. I had just stepped out of my shack when this crowd surrounded me, starting screaming and attacking me,” says Alfonso Michael, Mozambican refugee living in South Africa. “They were stabbing me with knives. I do not remember what happened except that after I woke up in hospital I was told I'm handicapped. I can hardly walk because of the pain. I have nothing now. They took everything.”

For months they have flocked with little more than the clothes on their backs. The pots and pans they cook with, the clothes they wash in dirty water, all gifts.

Across South Africa, there are half a dozen of refugee camps with people from as many as 15 African countries. Twice a day, for a few hours in the scorching heat, these people wait in the queue for an apple, an orange and a slice of bread.

Analysts say the violence is just the tip of the iceberg worsened by frustration caused by harsh economic times.

Frans Cronje from the Institute of Race Relations says: “The combined effect was put the squeeze very tightly on poor communities in South Africa, who were already spending all their income on their necessities to keep the standard of living they are accustomed to. When they had to cut down some of these necessities – they become very angry.”

And that anger simmers close to the boil. Many of the refugees will stay in rough shelters and take their chances. Most of them have nowhere else to go.