Interview with Rampe Hlobo SJ, director of the Jesuit Refugee Service in South Africa

Explain to us who are you , where do you come from and which is your work at JRS?

My name is Rampe Hlobo, I'm a southafrican Jesuit. I'm at the moment the director of Jesuit Refugee Service in South Africa and we work with urban refugees who come to South Africa.

For Europeans is difficult to understand the difficulties of urban refugees in the world. Can you explain to us, who are the urban refugees?

Before, the classical refugee was somebody who was in a camp hosted by a government, but now there is a shift to refugees trying to be locally integrated to urban communities. This is the case in South Africa.

All our refugees are not camp refugees; they are urban refugees because they come into South Africa and they live in the country, cities or towns where southafricans live. Those are urban refugees, they are not confined in a camp, and they have to live in communities like everybody else.

There are a lot of challenges with them. The principal one is accommodation. They need to have accommodation; they need education for their children, so they can have a better future. They need to find food for the family and they need a job for that.

From which countries they come to SouthAfrica and why?

Most of the people come from the Corn of Africa: Somalia , Eritrea and Ethiopia, or mainly have been displaced from Zimbabwe which is just up north of our borders.

Then we have a lot of refugees from the Great Lakes region: Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi and Rwanda. We have also from other countries but the numbers are not as significant as it is for those three groups that I mentioned.

If you look at the situation in Zimbabwe in the last ten or twelve years, the violation of human right and has pushed the people to go somewhere else trying to find a better life for themselves, and for their children and for their future.

As we speak of the moment, inside South Africa we have problems with the refugees from the East part of the country and refugees from the capital city. The tensions that are growing and are starting to be a problem of justice and human rights.

So all this three important paths of Africa have experiencing serious instability in which we have serious violation of human rights and inevitable people is forced to move to places which are relatively safe, places where they can rebuild their lives.

As you have said, in a camp we can see the refugees , but also the way they have used to try to arrive there. How do they arrive to South Africa?

Well there are many different ways. Some refugees come from one country to the other until they reach South Africa. Some come by via Zambia - Zimbabwe, or via- Zambia- Botswana into South Africa. People who come from the Corn of Africa mostly come via Kenya- Tanzania- Malawi - Mozambique. They use different transports for getting there. I remember that ten years ago we would have people who will actually walk from the Corn of Africa, it take them 4 months to reach Johannesburg.

Now that we have more trucks moving between South Africa and southern African countries they also relay on trucks,. They managed to get a lift to reach into South Africa, and they become vulnerable, special women, who sometimes are asked for sexual favors.

In case of Zimbabwe along in the border with South Africa, there is a group of bands gangsters, called Amagomagoma, which have been operating among the frontier and attack and rob people who are trying to cross the border. It's dangerous, when they reach South Africa, one can really admire the courage and the persistence of the refugees after going all through the things they go until they arrive into South Africa. Our country is like a promise land but when the refugees arrive here, they notice is not like a promise land. Is like a mirage, you know, when they get there, in most cases there´s nothing for them.

Explain to us the situation when families arrive into South Africa. What do they do? How they find the JRS? They know other people that can help them? They stay in the street?

There is a little bit of everything going on, it depends. Some of them already have friends or somebody to refer to, recommended by someone they know back home. Some others are recommended to find agencies like ours, and then we will start helping them in whatever we can. Others go to the churches and they will refer them to organizations and refugees that that can help them. Or they will ask around until they find us.

Which is the way that you can help them?

We have projects in three cities in South Africa: one in Johannesburg, one at the center of the country in Pretoria, and one up in the north which is located at 120 kilometers from the border with Zimbabwe.

In the north of South Africa, located in a town named Makhato, we have a project that receives many people from Zimbabwe. Some of them have walked; others have been lifted with the bus. When they arrive we give them something to eat and clothes because some have been robbed by the gangsters in the border. They arrive with nothing.

We try to help the most vulnerable with a place to stay or a room to rent. Specially those who arrive with little babies. For some of the children, we try to get them into school so they can have education. We also help those who come for food passes. We have a program of food passes and we try to offer a balance meal that gives them nutrients.

We also have an education program. We try to get little children into school through the relationship we have developed with public schools. We help to regist the children and inform the parents about the lectures and about their rights and obligation in case they have trouble with schools. Like this, the parents will know what to do in order to let their children attend to school. Also we have workshops for the children to help them integrate better to schools.

For the parents who don't speak English, we have special classes for them. In Pretoria, we collaborate with the English department of the University of South Africa giving training so that their English skills are valued. This collaboration is very important for us and very useful for the refugees because if they don't speak English they can't communicate with the South Africans, and they will be excluded.

At our Health Program we do a lot of advocacy. In South Africa, the fee that you pay determines the treatment that you receive. For most of the medical cases of refugees, the hospitals put the category of foreigners, and the prices are higher for them than for the rest of southafricans.

The Livelihood program helps the refugees to be (autosustantable) and independent. We have colleges where we send them for learning new skills. At the workshops we invite colleges to the camp to give presentations to refugees. Like this, the refugees have options, and they can choose the one they like the most. . Most of the courses take from 3 to 6 months, and after that they can get a job.

The biggest challenge we try to have a relation also with institutions that can help small businesses in South Africa and that can give them a small training on how to run a business professionally. The problem is that when the people earn money, don't invest in their business, we hope that with the courses this will improve.

How many people do you help per year?

Last year we were able to help close to 6,000 people, but the people who come to see us is much more. One of the problems of the urban refugees is they live under the situation where they have to do all for themselves because the government doesn't help them.

In the camp they are being helped, but in the city is more complicated. The numbers of people who need us is more that the ones we managed to help. We have big quantity of applications of people who need us, but always take the people who are most vulnerable.

How do refugees manage their legal situation?

We work with the inform of 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which I think is a fundamental document for all of us. More specifically, we have the 1951 Geneva Convention which gave a definition of refugees, but had some geographic limitations, so we addressed to the 1967 Protocol. Then we have the 1969 Organization of the African Unity Convention, which is closer to us because includes the consideration of public disturbances. And then coming closer to our labor we have the 1998 Refugee Act which is based on those 3 international conventions: Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 1951 Geneva Convention of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol. We have also our constitution that talks about the people who live in South Africa, also the refugees, and protects them all.


- Vídeo SJR about the urban refugees.