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Medics stand by a burning apartment block in Johannesburg on August 31, 2023. © 2023 Jerome Delay/AP Photo

More than 70 people were killed last week when a fire tore through a five-story neglected building in Johannesburg’s central business district. The “informal settlement” was occupied in large part by undocumented migrants living with little to no access to electricity, water or adequate sanitation.

In the wake of the tragedy, many South Africans started blaming foreign nationals, with some claiming that eviction laws protect criminals by making it difficult to remove people who are occupying buildings without authorization. That prompted Kenny Kunene, a member of the Mayoral Committee for Transport, to call for “mass deportation of illegal immigrants who are staying in these buildings that are taking rent.” The city or provincial government reportedly owns more than 50 such abandoned buildings which have been “hijacked” by criminal syndicates who rent them out illegally.

The government has offered temporary accommodation in community halls for residents of the building, but many undocumented migrants are opting out for fear it will lead to deportation. Many have also refused treatment at the hospital.

Their fears are understandable given that they have been blamed for the fire, and the general xenophobic attitude towards foreign nationals in the country. Human Rights Watch has documented how foreign nationals living in South Africa, whether documented or not, face discrimination, harassment, attacks, and violence.

President Ramaphosa correctly called this tragedy a “wake up call”. The task for his government now is to meet South Africa’s constitutional obligation to provide adequate housing for everyone, regardless of immigration status. The Department of Home Affairs also needs to clear its backlog of asylum applications so that asylum seekers do not struggle to access services, and are protected from arrest, deportation, and exploitation.

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