Nigeria has started the process of repatriating more than 600 of its citizens from South Africa following a wave of deadly xenophobic attacks that has frayed relations between the two countries.
Private Nigerian airline Air Peace, has volunteered to fly people for free. At least 320 Nigerians are expected to be flown out on Wednesday, while a second flight will depart on Thursday.
Al Jazeera’s Fahmida Miller, reporting from the airport in Johannesburg, said on Wednesday that “of the more [than] 600 people who [were] expected to leave, at least half of them” were already there, while a “small group of people were turned back, due to incorrect documentation.”
The repatriation came after deadly riots in Pretoria and Johannesburg killed at least 12 people, including two foreigners, and targeted 1,000 foreign-owned businesses.
The violence sparked international outcry and calls for a boycott.
Reprisal attacks in Nigeria forced South African businesses to shut down while the South African embassy in Lagos temporarily closed its doors for safety and security reasons.
Ayanda Dlodlo, South Africa’s minister of state security, told reporters in Cape Town on Monday that those leaving will have to go through normal immigration processes.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, Pastor Ugo Ofoegbu, who was at the airport to board the flight, said that “some [people] had an expired passport.”
“They will have to go to the Nigerian consulate to get the [right] documentation that will allow them to travel,” the added.
Violence against foreigners is not a new phenomenon in South Africa. Similar incidents had taken place before in 2008 and 2015.
“I am so worried about the safety of my family, because these [xenophobic] attacks keep happening, so if I don’t save my family now, I don’t know when [this will] start again,” Ofoegbu said
“It happened in 2008, and then in 2015, now it is repeating, so nobody knows when will it happen again,” he added.
The root causes of the latest wave of violence are still unclear but reports suggest it is related to high unemployment, criminality and poverty in the country.
Hesitancy from South Africa
However, South African officials have been hesitant to describe the wave of violence as xenophobic attacks, and instead said this was an issue of criminality that the government is trying to deal with.
“While there has been a significant decline in the number of incidents, police forces remain on high alert and are closely monitoring hotspots to ensure further violence does not erupt,” Minister of Defence Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula said.
Police have arrested 653 people, mostly South Africans but some foreigners as well, in connection with the attacks, Minister of Police Bheki Cele said on Tuesday. Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari is expected to visit South Africa next month to discuss the attacks and seek a solution.