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Mozambique struggles to accommodate refugees from South Africa

Xenophobic violence forced many to flee. Now, they face an uncertain future inside transit camps.

By Correspondent  / June 17, 2008

In transit: Regina and Mike Nhantumbo wait in a transit camp in Mozambique.

Stephanie Hanes

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Maputo, Mozambique

Three weeks ago, Regina Nhantumbo was running – away from her home and her business, away from the mob dancing around another lynched Mozambican, away from South Africa.

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Now, she is simply waiting.

Nearly 40,000 Mozambicans have crossed back into their home country since xenophobic violence swept through South Africa's squatter camps and townships in May, leaving dozens of people dead and hundreds injured. Thousands of Zimbabweans and Africans of other nationalities have also fled, ending up in transit camps where they, like Nhantumbo, wait and plan their next, uncertain move.

Meanwhile, regional leaders are scrambling to incorporate new refugees into already economically strained areas, while human rights experts warn about spreading instability. The violence may have subsided, they say, but its ripple effects are still coursing through the region.

"There are fears that if you bring people back, you don't give them jobs, you don't have a favorable economic situation – what do you expect them to do?" says Faten Aggad, a researcher at the South African Institute of International Affairs in Johannesburg. "People worry that [the newcomers] will commit crimes. It will certainly create tensions."

In Mozambique, which has borne the brunt of this fear-induced migration, the government declared a national disaster to better cope with the influx. It sent buses to evacuate citizens from South Africa, and the country's National Disaster Management Institute set up transit camps to give temporary shelter to returnees. The government even arranged to transport people from these camps to their home provinces – no small task for a cash-strapped country about twice the size of California.

But the buses to move people from the transit camps to distant towns are few and far between, and for many Mozambicans living in South Africa, the concept of "home" is now murky.

Which is why, at the Beluluane transit camp in the industrial outskirts of Mozambique's seaside capital, Maputo, Nhantumbo sits on a reed mat donated by the government while her son plays nearby in the soft, reddish dirt.

There are few people in this newly constructed tent village – most refugees have already left for Maputo or other nearby towns – and the sound of chirping birds adds a strangely pastoral feel to the place. But relief workers here say central command has told them to expect another busload of people soon.

"They'll need food, water," says a Mozambican relief worker who identifies herself only as Carla, since she is not authorized to speak publicly. "They will get one blanket per person, two bars of soap per tent, buckets, a reed mat. We help with the basic needs, and then get them on their way."