Joburg fire: Fears of arrest, deportation and xenophobia prevent some foreigners from going to shelters

Joburg fire: Fears of arrest, deportation and xenophobia prevent some foreigners from going to shelters


  • Some foreign nationals who survived the Johannesburg fire last Thursday have been sleeping on the streets since the incident.
  • They refuse to go to shelters for fear of being detained and deported.
  • Others alleged that South Africans who were also displaced in the fire were ill-treating foreign nationals at the shelters.

Displaced foreigners who lived at the inner-city building that caught fire and claimed the lives of more than 70 people fear deportation to the extent that they don’t want to look for their loved ones who could be dead or in hospital.

On Monday, Malawian national Fatima Banda, 20, sat on a street corner near where their building caught fire. She returns every day to what was their home until last Thursday, hoping to find her sister, Rejoice, 23, and brother Emmanuel, 30, whom she last saw when the building burnt down.

On the night of the fire, Banda slept on the same street corner and said some Good Samaritans came and donated blankets to herself and others who were stranded in the cold, while fellow Malawians offered her a place to sleep on Saturday night.

Perseverance Mukoni from Zimbabwe also says he has been sleeping on the street since the fire displaced them.

He said he didn’t feel comfortable going to any of the shelters offered by the City of Johannesburg because he had heard that displaced South Africans at the shelters were ill-treating foreign nationals.

Mukoni also believed the shelters were set up so authorities could detain and deport all the foreign nationals there.

READ | Joburg fire: Nine of 76 victims have been positively identified by loved ones

“I have three brothers who left the shelter the following day because they said it was not nice.

“They said they are being called names and when they tried to get food, South Africans told them that they must be last to get food because they are foreigners,” Mukoni told News24.

He also said he had been sleeping on the streets since last Thursday.

Mukoni said:

We make the fire to keep us warm and also use the blankets that were donated to us. During the day, we survive by donations from NGOs that bring us food. I don’t know for how long that will last, but that has been our life.

Displaced foreign nationals say they always encourage each other to stay as a group at all times to avoid being victimised by police on the streets.

News24 went to a shelter in Bezuidenhout Valley, where some of the displaced people are being accommodated.

The majority of the people there were South African.

While several women were interacting with each other, Fadila Kasim, 32, from Malawi, sat alone in one corner of a big hall that has been used to accommodate the men and women.

The other women had snacks, fruit and clothes packed next to their blankets.

Kasim only had a mattress and a blanket. She did not say much.

News24 had interacted with her last week Thursday at the scene of the fire. Her demeanour at the shelter was a complete contrast to who she was on the street.

She would only say that she was not OK and wanted to leave the shelter.

Nabeelah Mia, the head of the penal reform programme at Lawyers for Human Rights, said many of the fire survivors had lost everything.

Mia said the survivors had been through the physical and psychological trauma of losing their belongings and loved ones.

“On top of this, where survivors are [foreign] nationals, they fear that if asked for documentation, they will be unable to show it as some may have lost their documentation in the fire.

“If they cannot do so, the Department of Home Affairs might detain and deport them back to dire circumstances.

“The threat of detention and deportation is alone enough to cause trauma, especially given the conditions of detention and the ill-treatment people suffer when detained.

“Carrying that fear on top of the trauma resulting from the fire is heartbreaking,” she said.

Mia called for the humane treatment of survivors, not actions that will add to their trauma.

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