Page last updated at 10:42 GMT, Tuesday, 14 October 2008 11:42 UK

UNHCR 'failed' S Africa migrants

By Martin Plaut
BBC News

A Mozambican family wait in Primrose, east of Johannesburg, South Africa, for transport to take them home on 26 May
Thousands of foreigners fled a series of brutal attacks across the country

South African civic organisations are demanding an inquiry into the United Nations refugee agency's response to May's xenophobic violence.

They accuse the UNHCR of failing in its responsibility to stand up for the most vulnerable people.

An estimated 100,000 African migrants were displaced in the attacks and many sought refuge in displacement camps.

The groups say some UNHCR staff helping at the camps treated people with "enormous contempt and disrespect".

At least 62 people were killed in a series of brutal attacks on foreigners in towns across the country.

The government established a string of camps to house them, with the help of the UNHCR and local non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

The UNHCR says it will set up an inquiry into the allegations, which is due to report in the next few weeks.


Several of the NGOs who worked in the camps launched a blistering criticism of the way the UN refugee agency went about its work.

The UNHCR has not fulfilled its mandate to refugees and displaced people under international law
Lawyer Fatima Hassan

The document of their complaints has been signed by 14 local organisations including Black Sash, the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), the country's largest trade union federation, Cosatu, and the South African Council of Churches.

It says that UNHCR staff members who dealt with people in the camps in ways that "could contribute to xenophobia" and were sometimes downright "rude".

It accuses the UNHCR of failing to intervene to stop the South African government forcing Zimbabwean refugees back across the border.

Fatima Hassan, the lawyer who oversaw the drafting of the complaint, told the BBC that many people who fled to Zimbabwe had been unable to register as refugees.

"The UNHCR's position has always been to only regard them as economic migrants in all their advocacy with our government," said Ms Hassan.

"They have not publicly said these people should be regarded as refugees, and for us this is a major issue.

"The UNHCR has not fulfilled its mandate to refugees and displaced people under international law."

An internal investigation by another UN agency, a copy of which has been seen by the BBC, makes similar observations.

They conclude with a call for a "commission of inquiry into the failures of the UNHCR", an inquiry that they say should be "conducted in a public forum".

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