The South African authorities must investigate the delayed police response to last month's attacks against refugees and migrants and their property in Siyathemba Township, 80km south east of Johannesburg. The authorities must also ensure that those responsible for the attacks are held accountable.
Over 130 adults and children, most of them Ethiopian refugees, were affected by the violence on 7 and 8 February. They lost their livelihoods when an armed crowd of several hundred people looted and destroyed their shops. Some also lost their homes as they were living in the shops. Nearly 60 people required emergency shelter and humanitarian assistance.
The South African Police Service (SAPS) failed to prevent the violence from escalating and delayed seeking emergency back-up from organized police units with crowd control capacity. By the time a more effective police response became visible on 8 February, 25 shops had already been looted, damaged or destroyed and at least one refugee, an Ethiopian national, was injured.
The violence occurred during a community demonstration against a local mining company and local government over high unemployment and other grievances. Community leaders later stated that a group of individuals took advantage of the disorder created by the demonstration to loot a number of stores in the area owned by refugees and migrants.
However the attacks occurred less than eight months after similar attacks, in July 2009, against the property of refugees and migrants in the same area. The victims of those earlier attacks later felt pressured by community leaders and local officials into abandoning their criminal and compensation cases as a condition for reintegration.
Some of the refugees and migrants affected by the violence in February had also suffered in last year's attacks in Siyathemba. And a few among them had been displaced previously by the large-scale anti-foreigner violence in May 2008 in other parts of the country. They had moved to Siyathemba believing it to be a safer area to live and work.
In South Africa there is a persistent culture of impunity for crimes committed against refugees and migrants. For this reason they are particularly vulnerable to attack. Xenophobic attitudes amongst South Africans, including police and immigration officials, also fuel the violence.
Image: Refugees and migrants temporarily take shelter in a community hall after fleeing their shops and homes in Siyathemba Township, July 2009. Copyright: Private
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