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By Lisa Schlein
Geneva
30 May 2008

The UN refugee agency says it is providing 2,000 tents to the South African government to help provide much-needed shelter to thousands of people made homeless in the recent xenophobic attacks against foreigners. The UNHCR says it does not think camps are the best solution for these displaced people, but it realizes there are no alternatives for many of them for now. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from UNHCR headquarters in Geneva.

A foreigner's hand is seen at an informal gathering point in the city center of Cape Town, South Africa, 28 May 2008
A foreigner's hand is seen at an informal gathering point in the city center of Cape Town, South Africa, 28 May 2008
The United Nations reports the number of violent attacks against foreigners has decreased in the past few days. Despite this, it says foreigners remain anxious and fearful as intimidation and threats continue against their communities.

The government reports some 42,000 migrants, including refugees and asylum seekers, are sheltered in 95 makeshift sites, mostly in Guateng and Western Cape provinces.

UN refugee spokesman, Ron Redmond, says UNHCR field teams have been sent to areas around Johannesburg and Cape Town. He says the teams, which include two senior protection officers, are assessing the needs at the makeshift sites near police stations and other public venues. He says victims of violence are congregating there because they feel safer.

"We share the government's view that camps are not an appropriate response to displacement caused by xenophobic attacks. Such facilities often create more problems than they solve," Redmond said. "However, given the immediate humanitarian needs, UNHCR fully appreciates the current situation in which the displaced people are crowded together without proper shelter and sanitation facilities. So, temporary accommodation of some sort is needed immediately."

Redmond says the UNHCR is providing food, shelter, blankets and other basic household items to the migrants. He says these efforts are expanding and will continue.

More than 50 people have been killed since violent attacks against migrants and refugees broke out in South Africa on May 11. UNHCR says an estimated 100,000 people have been uprooted in systematic raids carried out by marauding gangs in the country's main urban centers.

Redmond says the majority of displaced are undocumented migrants from Mozambique, Malawi and other African countries. He says thousands have since returned to their countries of origin, or to a third country.

"One of the key elements of the government plan is to move the displaced from their current locations to these new sites, which the government refers to as 'temporary places of safety.' There they can be better assisted," added Redmond. "For UNHCR, it is imperative that these temporary sites meet internationally accepted standards and good practices. Among those affected are thousands of refugees and asylum-seekers from Zimbabwe, Somalia, Ethiopia and other African countries, whose homes were destroyed and businesses looted, and burned."

The United Nations notes most of the sites are overcrowded and do not meet international standard for human habitation. As a result, it says these places are becoming increasingly dangerous. Aid workers report rapes and sexual exploitation are occurring at ad hoc shelters in Johannesburg and Durban.

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