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Refugees fight to stay in one of South Africa's last, battered camps

Congolese and Somali migrants forced to flee their homes during last year's brutal anti-foreigner violence say it's too dangerous for them to leave the Blue Waters camp near Cape Town.

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"We don't know what to do. We can't go back to Congo because I will be put in jail, but we can't go back to Samora Machel because they will kill us. We are stuck here."

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Too dangerous to leave the camps?

Zam Zam Ibrahim fled Somalia's civil war in 2005 seeking a more peaceful life in South Africa. One year ago, she fled her home in Cape Town's Khayelitsha township with her husband, Ahmed, and two children amid shouts of "makwerekwere" – a slur now used to insult black African foreigners. Neighbors armed with machetes burned and looted their shop.

She is still reluctant to move out of the Blue Waters camp. Eight months ago her aunt and three children did relocate to Queenstown in the Eastern Cape, egged on by government mediators. Her aunt opened a shop, but three weeks later all four were killed by a mob.

John Kwigwasa, from Congo, was stabbed and chased out of Samora Machel township last May. When he tried to return in February after being encouraged by officials, he was shot in the leg by four men.

"They told us to go back home and stop taking our jobs," says Virginia Malebo, a mother of two, also from Congo. "We had to run for our lives. They said: 'You're lucky, your kids are supposed to die.' "

Move to close camp postponed ... for now

While most refugees suffer great hardships at the Blue Waters camp, it is at least safe from outside mobs. In a perverse irony, Blue Waters is a normally a popular holiday campground in the summer months situated next to a long white sandy beach with stunning views over False Bay and the Drakenstein Mountains.

Last Tuesday, the city council had an application to close the camp postponed after opposition from lawyers for the refugees. It was adjourned until next month.

Council officials have already demolished a number of wooden shacks, despite the recent poor winter weather, and are determined to close the site and reintegrate the 397 mostly Somali and Congolese residents back into the community.

City housing director Hans Smit says the refugees were told last October they were to leave the camp. He said over 20,000 displaced people had already been reintegrated into various communities but the Blue Waters group had "steadfastly refused to move."

Duncan Breen at the Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in South Africa says reintegration is the only option. "I understand the reluctance of people to return to their previous homes after what happened, but it's probably the only way. They don't necessarily have to go back to their previous homes, maybe nearer the urban centers where they can feel safer. But staying in camps indefinitely can't happen."

In the meantime, the residents sit in their tents and wonder what the future will bring.

"I can't leave, but I don't want to stay," says Mrs. Malebo. "It is hard here – it's cold, no electricity, no food. I had flu for two months." She has contemplated ending her life, but says her husband reminds her: 'No, what about the children?' We are stuck here."