Mozambique struggles to accommodate refugees from South Africa

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

Stephanie Hanes
In transit: Regina and Mike Nhantumbo wait in a transit camp in Mozambique.
Rich Clabaugh–STAFF

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.

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."

Nhantumbo has been here for five days. She says she is still waiting for a bus to take her some 140 miles to the coastal city of Xai Xai. (The government does not send buses north until they are completely filled, and one for Xai Xai left just before Nhantumbo arrived.) Xai Xai is where she lived before she joined her husband in South Africa in 2001, and she figures that it is the best place to go, even though she is not sure what she will do there.

She had been making a living by selling clothes in Johannesburg – buying garments downtown and then retailing them in the surrounding suburbs.

But when a mob swept through her neighborhood three weeks ago, singing about killing foreigners, she and her husband left their house and belongings to go to the police station for shelter. They walked past a dead body, she says, and tried to blend into the cheering crowd. That night, looters took everything from their house.

She and her husband and child spent 12 days at the police station, and then she and the boy took a train back to Mozambique. Her husband stayed in South Africa to evaluate the situation and see whether he could restart work as a mechanic there, she says. Her role is less clear.

"I don't know what to do. I don't have money to restart my business. I don't even have a house."

Many in Mozambique and elsewhere have called for the South African government to pay reparations to the victims of xenophobic violence – a position South Africa rejects. Last weekend, about 1,000 protesters marched in Maputo, demanding that the two countries' governments work to compensate victims and their families.

A few weeks earlier, pamphlets, and e-mails around Maputo encouraged locals to steal or attack cars with South African plates, and to generally take revenge. But Mozambique's president, Armando Guebuza, "not to react with hatred" against South Africans, and there were no reported acts of retaliatory violence.

Alberto Fato agrees with the president, although he can't help feeling bitterness toward the country he lived in for 12 years.

Today, he is staying in a tent a dozen yards from Nhantumbo, also waiting. His goal is to go some 1,500 miles north to the province where he grew up and where he still owns a small field.

Mr. Fato was working as a tailor in a suburb of Durban when the violence started, he says, and was even married to a South African woman. But when he heard that the xenophobic rage was spreading from of Johannesburg to other parts of South Africa, decided to leave his family behind and return to the safety of his own country.

"My wife, she was crying when I left, because she didn't know if I would return," Fato says. He adds that he has no plans to go back to South Africa. "I fear this problem. It may die down now, but in one way or another it will flare up again."

He says that he is not sure what he will do when he gets north – he had to leave his sewing machine and many of his possessions behind.

This is a common feeling among the refugees, and a concern to the government here. Many of the expatriates had been sending cash earned in South Africa back to their families in Mozambique. Now, they are returning empty-handed into a country where the unemployment rate is an estimated 21 percent.

"There's a general sentiment that Mozambique has done as much as it could to bring people back," Ms. Aggad says. "But there's no real strategy of how to integrate the refugees."

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