Ali Omar Mohamed fled Somalia’s civil war two years ago to seek a better life in South Africa. Now after being robbed at gunpoint and seeing scores of his countrymen murdered in xenophobic violence, he’s ready to leave.
Mohammed, a 21-year-old shopkeeper, is part of a growing tide of immigrants who say they prefer returning to a war zone rather than face the hatred and jealousy they are subject to in South Africa where they’re called “the enemy.”
“It’s better to die in your country where your mother and father can see you and not worry so much,” said Mohamed, who sleeps in a small room attached to the shop in the northern Johannesburg shantytown of Diepsloot. “As soon as possible, I’ll go back.”
About 2,000 Somalis, or almost 8 percent of those living in South Africa, have returned home this year as parts of the Horn of Africa country become more stable after African Union troops drove Islamist militants out of the biggest towns, the mission head of Somalia’s embassy in the capital, Pretoria, Mohamed Ali Mire, said in an Oct. 9 interview.
Over the past six months, disputes between Somali shopkeepers and South Africans have deteriorated into looting and burning sprees of dozens of stores in parts of Johannesburg and the coastal city of Port Elizabeth, according to police.
Mohamed says he’s wary of everyone who walks into his grocery store, which sells everything from individual cigarettes to 20-liter (5.2-gallon) buckets of sunflower oil.
“Every time someone comes through the door I’m worried,” he said in an Oct. 11 interview at the shop as customers searched his freezers for bags of chicken pieces or perused the shelves lining the unpainted walls for detergent or shoe polish.
Somalis and Pakistanis, who’re able to tap their close-knit communities for capital to start businesses, dominate convenience stores known as spaza shops in townships and shantytowns on the outskirts of South Africa’s major cities.
Conspicuous by their distinctive languages and Muslim religion in a mainly Christian country, their business acumen has stoked jealousy among many citizens in South Africa, where one-in-four are unemployed.
“There are too many foreigners here, they undercut everyone. Every corner, there is a Somali shop,” Magdalene Thabana, 56, said as she sat on a red plastic stool selling bags of scones across the road from Mohamed’s store. “I don’t have enough money to start a shop.”
That sentiment was echoed by South Africa’s Deputy Trade and Industry Minister Elizabeth Thabethe on Oct. 10.
“You still find many spaza shops with African names, but when you go in to buy you find your Mohammeds and most of them are not even registered,” she was quoted as saying by the South African Press Association.
Jackie Mckay, the deputy director-general in charge immigration services at the Department of Home Affairs, declined to comment on the increasing number of Somalis leaving the country, saying he wasn’t authorized to speak to the media.
A wave of xenophobic violence led to about 60 deaths, including some Somalis, and as many as 50,000 people being forced to flee their homes and shops in 2008. Since then, Somalis have been the hardest hit by outbreaks of xenophobic violence, police spokeswoman Brigadier Marinda Mills said in a phone interview.
While South Africa’s murder rate has dropped by more than half to 31.1 per 100,000 people since 1995, it remains six times higher than that of the U.S.
In Gauteng, South Africa’s most populous province that includes the metropolitan sprawl of Johannesburg and Pretoria, 7.1 percent of the 12.3 million population are foreign nationals, according to data from a 2011 census.
While the majority of Somali emigrants are in neighboring countries such as Kenya, they make up the second-largest group of refugees and asylum-seekers in South Africa after Zimbabweans, data from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees shows. South Africa also has a significant number of refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola.
The conflict in Somalia since the 1991 fall of Mohamed Siad Barre’s dictatorship has spawned more than a million refugees, about a 10th of its population and more than any other nation except for Afghanistan and Iraq, according to UNHCR.
In the past two years, government troops backed by about 17,000 African Union troops have pushed the al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabaab militant group out of the capital, Mogadishu, and other major towns. President Hassan Sheikh Mohamoud’s year-old government is the first to receive U.S. recognition in two decades and last month received pledges of 1.8 billion euros ($2.5 billion) in aid from European countries.
Mogadishu hasn’t been free of al-Shabaab attacks. The group carried out bombings at the UN compound in June and the Turkish embassy in July.
“Security is improving compared to what it was like 10 years ago, but it’s still a very, very dangerous place,” Alphonse Munyaneza, the UNHCR’s senior regional community service officer in South Africa, said in a phone interview. “The UNHCR is not encouraging a return to Somalia anytime soon.”
The Somali government is encouraging its citizens to return, even though their homeland remains unsafe, Kaajal Ramjathan-Keogh, the head of Johannesburg-based Lawyers for Human Rights’ Refugee and Migrants Programme, said in an interview.
In South Africa, the situation for Somalis is deteriorating.
“Somalis are subjected to a high rate of fatalities and loss of livelihoods,” Munyaneza said in an interview. “This is unprecedented. They’re being attacked with impunity. The Somalis are the ones who are the hardest hit amongst the foreigners.”
Somali Prime Minister Abdi Farah Shirdon wrote to South African President Jacob Zuma in June to urge him to contain violence against his countrymen.
Somalis have increasingly been denied legal documents from South Africa’s Department of Home Affairs in breach of agreements such as the 1951 Refugee Convention, Amir Sheikh, the chairman of the Somali Community Board, which represents Somalis in South Africa, said in an Oct. 9 interview at his office in Johannesburg mainly Muslim suburb of Mayfair.
For many Somalis, returning home is now a safer choice than remaining in South Africa.
“They are tired of the on-going xenophobic attacks, and the constant hurting and maiming of Somalis,” Sheikh said. “It’s better to go home and die in dignity than to die far away from home.”