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UNHCR urged to probe SA body’s ‘failure to aid refugees’

Resource type: News

Cape Times (South Africa) |

by NATASHA JOSEPH ANGRY civil society groups have asked the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to launch a commission of inquiry into its Pretoria office which, they say, failed to “meet its mandate to protect refugees and displaced people” following xenophobic attacks that rocked South Africa earlier this year. Fifteen groups, among them the Treatment Action Campaign, the Black Sash, and Cosatu, and two volunteers who have worked at Western Cape refugee camps have fired off a formal complaint about the UNHCR’s Pretoria office to the organisation’s headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. In the 24-page document, a copy of which is in the Cape Times’ possession, the South African civil society groups claim UNHCR intervention since the xenophobic violence has been “inadequate” and “unco-operative” and that UNHCR officials have been “aggressive, rude and abrasive” in dealing with refugees’ concerns. The groups say they believe the UNHCR has “failed to meet its mandate on six major levels”. These relate to the consolidation of safety sites across the country and conditions at these, reintegration of displaced people, tackling the problem of undocumented ref-ugees, “refugee advocacy”, the resettlement of refugees in other countries, and the “lack of communication”. The organisations allege “there has been a general lack of effort (by) the UNHCR to advocate” for refugees’ rights. “In our view, the UNHCR has been perhaps the least effective office and organisation on the ground in South Africa in terms of protecting and promoting refugee rights and that of displaced people since this crisis commenced.” Yesterday, phones at the UNHCR’s Pretoria offices rang and then cut off. Several attempts to reach a spokesperson were unsuccessful. The groups faxed their complaint to the UNHCR’s headquarters yesterday. Copies of the document were also sent to the office of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navanethem Pillay and the office of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon. The letter reads: “We are still open to working with the UNHCR to come to a collective, comprehensive and lasting solution to the crisis that has emerged in South Africa, but we find such an effort impossible if the UNHCR will not conduct itself in a manner of accountability consistent with its mandate.” The groups ask that the UNHCR in Geneva hold a commission of inquiry into the failure of the UNHCR in Pretoria to fulfil its mandate. They call for the inquiry to be “conducted in a public forum, so all reported … actions of the UNHCR may be confirmed or disputed”. “People affected by the violence and civil society deserve a public apology from the UNHCR, as well as a public acknowledgement of the failure of its local office and its staff to meet its mandate here.

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