South Africa: sanctuary at a price

(Summary report of  Oromia Support Group Report 49) Fifty-eight Oromo and two Ogadeni refugees from Ethiopia were interviewed in Johannesburg, Alexandra township and Randfontein, in Guateng province, and in Kinross and Evander, Mpumalanga province, in October and November 2012. The refugees reported serious abuse in Ethiopia and hazardous journeys to South Africa.

The 60 interviewees corroborated previous reports of extraordinarily high rates of torture in places of detention in Ethiopia. 26 (43%) had been tortured-58% of the men and 26% of the women. Of the 38 who had been detained, 68% reported being tortured. All had been severely beaten. 76% of detained men and 54% of detained women were tortured.

Reported conditions of detention in Ethiopia were atrocious. Torture was routinely practised in military camps, prisons, police st ations and unofficial places of detention. Methods included arm-tying (falantis), severe enough to cause nerve damage; flaying of the soles of the feet (bastinado); mock execution; whipping; immersion of the head in water and other forms of asphyxiation; walking and running on gravel, barefoot or on knees; suspension by the wrists or ankles; stress positions; sleep deprivation by flooding cells; drenching and other exposure to cold; electrocution; suspension of weights from genitalia; and castration.

Previous reports of high mortality rates among detainees in military camps, especially Hamaresa in E. Hararge, were corroborated by former detainees. In addition to the many who were killed or died in detention, the interviewees reported 91 killings of family and friends. These included 21 summary executions, some of which were public. Interviewees also reported 18 disappearances, ten of close relatives.

Only two of 13 women former detainees were raped in custody, considerably less than the 50% in previous reports, but this probably reflects the small size of the sampled population. Another interviewee was raped in her home by a government official and then in Kakuma camp, Kenya, by an Ethiopian security agent. Three interviewees reported rape of others in Ethiopia, including the multiple gang-rape of a 14 year-old in the Ogaden, who was strangled to death after ten days by the soldiers who raped her.

Although almost all of the abuses were justified by state actors on the basis of victims’ involvement with the Oromo Liberation Front, only half of the interviewees had ever had any personal or family association with the organisation.

Only three were themselves involved after the OLF left government in 1992.

Travellers to South Africa were at risk of abuse,including rape, by people-smugglers. Several deaths were witnessed during dangerous and harsh journeys lasting up to 12 months, during which migrants were often short of food and water. Detention in unsanitary, severely overcrowded conditions, especially in Zambia, Tanzania and Malawi, for up to five months, was experienced by 18 interviewees (21 episodes). Deportation and attempted deportation was reported by four.

Making a living in South Africa, although legal, is difficult and dangerous. The majority of interviewees work or have worked in township tuckshops, which are frequently subject to armed robbery and xenophobic attacks. At least five Oromo died in tuckshop attacks in 2012 alone. On average, each tuckshop is robbed every 5-6 months. Several organised racist attacks against tuckshops were reported and xenophobic threats, direct and via distributed leaflets, were recorded.

Violence and robbery on the street is common. One young woman was raped on her way to work one Sunday morning, in central Johannesburg, a few days before interview.

The South African government appears unenthusiastic in tackling xenophobic violence and, at best, ambivalent in honouring its responsibilities to refugees, according to international law and its own constitution. It has failed to address the ubiquitous high level of violence.

Xenophobia is fuelled by local leaders and politicians in order to bolster their popularity and power.

The refugee determination process is thoroughly corrupted and meaningless. Refugee status is virtually sold as a commodity.

Whereas refugees are able to make a living in South Africa better than elsewhere on the continent, this is at a price. The violence which is characteristic of everyday life in the country is particularly likely to impact on the poor and the immigrant.

A vibrant civil society stands in bright contrast to the ANC government and is a hopeful sign that prosperity and tolerance may eventually prevail in South Africa.



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