South Africa remains a popular destination for migrants from across the African continent who are either fleeing various conflicts or come in search of a better life. The influx of migrants brings its own challenges, particularly in a country grappling with the injustices of the past which are further compounded by high levels of unemployment, poverty and inequality.
In 2008, widespread violence left 69 people dead and thousands homeless, exposing the deadly and destructive consequence of xenophobic attitudes when they are not adequately addressed and the state has no plan to deal with the problem. Recent surveys show that negative attitudes amongst South Africans towards foreign nationals remain prevalent. Consequently, foreign nationals, particularly from other African nations, still find themselves at much greater risk of becoming victims of crime, violent attacks and police abuses than South African citizens.
The seminar explored this ongoing problem and considered the various initiatives that aim to address it. The speakers were:
- Samson Ogunyemi of the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS)
- Stella Mkiliwane, Director of the Refugees Ministries Centre
- Annah Moyo, Advocacy Officer at the Centre for the study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR)
Samson Ogunyemi, explained that JRS is a partner of the United Nations and works in 55 countries. In South Africa JRS advocates for the rights of refugees and asylum seekers, who are often among the most marginalised in society. Ogunyemi discussed national and international laws that define and protect refugees and asylum seekers. He emphasised that the rights of refugees and asylum seekers are often not respected by authorities, and that, the ‘interventions and responses are not consistent and sustainable’. The closure of the Refugee Reception Offices, or their relocation to the border areas, will create an additional burden for refugees and asylum seekers, and is also likely to be costly and difficult to implement. Ogunyemi concluded that advocacy strategies and collaboration between the various stakeholders needs to be improved.
Stella Mkiliwane focused on the reasons for migration, the causes of xenophobia, and the overall impact this has on the people who – often fleeing from trauma of some sort in their home countries – continue to undergo difficult circumstances once they have arrived in South Africa. Mkiliwane noted that although all foreigners are protected by the country’s Constitution, for each of the rights, a corresponding set of challenges can be found. For instance, although all foreign children have the right to education, they face discrimination from fellow pupils and, more alarmingly, from the school administrators responsible for admission. Similar examples were provided for the rights to employment, movement, access to information, etc. In sum, the overall picture for refugees, asylum seekers and foreigners generally, is bleak in South Africa. Discrimination and harassment are rampant within communities, the private sector and government bodies. There is a need for a common strategy between all the stakeholders, which includes civil society, government, and the business sector if xenophobia is to be eradicated in South Africa.
Annah Moyo from the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation reiterated that refugees and asylum seekers are often fleeing from some form of trauma and, upon arrival in South Africa, are often subjected to secondary victimisation. In addition to their daily struggle of feeding their families, accessing education and documentation, the affect of xenophobic violence is often a disturbing parallel to the experiences which caused them to flee their home countries. In sum, one of the main challenges is to emerge from the cyclic nature of their circumstances, which sees them having to rebuild their lives on an on-going basis.
Discussions during the seminar noted that South African government leaders have not acted decisively on the issue of xenophobia. Indeed, government’s denial of the severity of the problem is indicated in how violence against foreigners is portrayed, not as xenophobia, but rather as ‘criminal acts’. In addition, despite ongoing attacks against foreign owned businesses – which is the root of the violent outbreaks in 2007 – government has not given much attention to the issue. Political parties, perhaps aware of the political capital that can be gained by not condemning xenophobia, have said and done little to address this endemic problem within South African society.
To listen to the podcast interviews with the speakers, click here
- Presentation by Stella Mkiliwane on Xenophobia and refugee rights in SA
- Presentation by Samson Ogunyemi on Refugee rights in the context of xenophobic violence in South Africa and the advocacy work of Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS)
- Presentation by AnnahMoyo, Advocacy Officer, Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR)