Pursuant to the unfortunate recent attacks on migrants in South Africa, and on International Refugee Day the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Home Affairs and Foreign Affairs, in conjunction with the South African Migration Project, conducted a public seminar on current developments in the field of migration and issues related to xenophobia. Experts in the field of migration, community leaders, country ambassadors, Ministers of key Departments, the United Nations Commissioner for Refugees and provincial and local government representatives were invited to present on a range of relevant topics and encourage debate on the issues. There were around 45 000 refugees in
A speaker from the Alexandra community apologised on behalf of the residents of Alexander, noting that this had been deeply embarrassing to the community. He called for Institutions such as the Human Rights Commission to go into the communities and educate community members. The International Organisation for Migration noted that xenophobia was not a South African phenomenon and there was a need to protect asylum seekers, and issue asylum seekers with documents where they could have access to services. The South African Migration Project noted that there had been xenophobia problems also in 2006, when the Office of the Premier had addressed the problem, but this project had been abandoned for lack of skills. The Project noted that although the attacks were halted early, there was still much looting. A refugee from the
A member of the public claimed that the attacks were the result of criminal elements, and that government had failed to ensure that people were secure and free, including refugees, and to engage with communities. The Somali Community Board stressed that refugees who had fled to
Seminar on Migration and Xenophobia
The Chairperson welcomed everyone to the seminar as “ordinary Africans” and stressed that the point of the seminar was to make space to engage in dialogue about the challenges that ordinary Africans faced. He emphasised the need to find a solution to address the continuing issues. He noted that a Joint Committee Report would eventually be drawn up and debated in Parliament, and that this would contain recommendations to deal with the issues of refugees and immigrants. South Africans and all other Africans had been together for a long time but still did not communicate with each other. He said this seminar aimed to address how the South African Parliament could be a saviour for these problems.
The Chairperson stated that one of the largest challenges South Africans faced was living together. He assured those present that if everyone took a conscious decision to allow a better life in the whole country then everyone would be able to share in the space.
Mr Obed Bapela, Chairperson, Parliamentary Oversight Accountability. and International Relations. Committee, stated that the recent xenophobic attacks had shamed the nation. He reminded the public that there were approximately 45 000 refugees in
Mr Bapela also told the story of police officials and South Africans asking supposed foreigners to name a certain party of their body in a particular South African language, such as Zulu. If the person asked could not do this correctly he could be arrested or victimised. Assaults were also based on such issues as being “too black”, even for those who were South African born, in which case they would still be detained and have to prove their status in order to be released.
Mr Bapela said the problem faced did not have its roots in hatred, but in fear. Locals feared that foreigners would take their house, girlfriend or job or other scarce resources. He said the tensions in the social fabric, exacerbated by corruption, were growing. Other issues included discrimination, misconceptions leading to stereotypes, the general inflow of migration, and poverty. He said that the first issue to be directly worked on was an analysis of gaps in the system, through hearings and subsequent review of the law following recommendations to Parliament. Secondly, an awareness campaign must be initiated to dispel the ignorance that South Africans had towards the rest of
The Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ms Sue van der Merwe, introduced the foreign policy objectives of
The Minister of Home Affairs, Ms Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula said that World Refugee Day reminded South Africans of the need to create understanding. South Africans needed to be educated about those who were forced to flee from their previous lives to find safety and peace. South Africans must continue to condemn violence against foreigners and continue to bring perpetrators to justice. The current public debate was missing the important point that this society should revisit the underlying truths of humanity that all shared. Intolerance could not be the payback for the years that South Africans spent in exile during apartheid. Protecting refugees was not a question of charity, but of humanity. Everyone needed to look beyond simple justifications while simultaneously being compassionate about the plight of others.
Ms Mapisa-Nqakula acknowledged the flaws of the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) and recognized the implementation of the Turnaround Task Team in respect of documentation for refugees and migrants. She said a new system of electronic applications had assisted the turnaround time. Another 200 staff had also been added to the DHA. The Refugees Act had been amended to allow for the setting up of more Refugee Reception Offices. The Refugee Backlog Project had successfully processed around 111 000 backlogged applications. She assured the seminar that the government would continue to make it possible for both asylum seekers and those with refugee status to seek employment and education.
Ms Mapisa-Nqakula explained that the general trend in migration policy was to see migrants as a security risk and an economic burden on the host country. A more empowering migration policy, which would recognise the skills that migrants could bring to South Africa, would help to turn this trend back around to one of inclusion and protection. She explained the plight of women refugees who encountered violence and rape. All refugees should be treated humanely and enjoy the rights guaranteed to them under the South African Constitution. Lastly, she said communication must continue to flow between the government, the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR), local communities and refugees.
Ms Judith Cohen, Head of Parliamentary Programme, South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), stated that never before in history had such a large number of non-nationals become displaced. She said the SAHRC had been grappling to keep abreast of the quickly changing challenges since the attacks in May, and that there had been severe aftereffects. SAHRC, as a Constitutional institution, had been involved in preventing future violence, working with the Civil Society Task Team and producing monitoring materials. Volunteers had been to refugee camps and had given reports on the situations there with the aim of starting constructive dialogue. Ms Cohen said the SAHRC had also done work to inform refugees of their rights. It had found that there were few government representatives present in the camps to examine the conflict at first hand. She also said that camp leaders were often arrested through lack of communication, with government preferring police action rather than conflict resolution. Ms Cohen said SAHRC had called for a complete moratorium on detentions and deportations. The SAHRC also recommended closure of the camps and integration of the refugees into society on a more stable basis. However, such integration could not be forced. She concluded by saying that
A representative from the Alexandra community apologised on behalf of the residents of Alexandra. He said that the community had a history of engagement with foreigners and they were deeply embarrassed by what happened. There needed to be engagements with the communities on issues such as the importance of human rights, and programmes that educated South African society on the rest of
The situation in Alexandra arose as a result of housing developments taking place in many parts of the township. Some opportunists decided that some of the housing developments should belong to foreigners and this angered many community members. It should be noted that there were criminal elements involved, and over the past few days many had tried to repeat their criminal activities. There was however strong intervention from political parties, which prevented the violence from once again flaring up. A report had been compiled by various security agencies on what happened and it would be tabled shortly.
He noted that not all foreigners had been displaced from Alexandra, and even of those who had been, several had returned to their communities. Challenges still existed in that some areas were deemed dangerous, and alternative accommodation was being sought for displaced foreigners from those communities. The community also appreciated the fact that the political leaders gave the local leaders space to address key issues.
Another speaker from Alexandra noted that the situation was unexpected. He had grown up with foreigners and xenophobia had never been an issue. This situation gave criminals an opportunity to continue with their criminal activities. The Alexandra community was working hard to find the root causes of the violence, and hoped that both citizens and foreigners would involve themselves in the activities of the communities.
The International Organisation for Migration noted that it had been involved in addressing the plight of all foreigners across the country. The Organisation met with government officials in order to discuss issues pertaining to humanitarian relief. The matters that arose included bringing to justice the perpetrators of the violence, protection of the displaced, re-integration, and prevention of future occurrence of xenophobic attacks. It should be noted that xenophobia was not a South African phenomenon and there was a need to protect asylum seekers, and issue them with documents where they could have access to services. The Organisation commended the DHA for issuing temporary permits.
The South African Migration Project noted that the Masiphumelele community had a xenophobic problem back in 2006, and the Office of the Premier had visited the community in order to address the problem. However, this project had been abandoned owing to the lack of skills to continue it. The recent attacks were picked up early, but the community had still looted the shops of foreigners. A prayer meeting was convened, as the matter was uncontrollable. This was then followed by a visit to the Soetwater camp, where an apology was issued to foreigners by members of the community. Re-integration into the community was slowly taking place, and many people had returned to their homes. Some Somali business owners faced the challenges of rebuilding their stores. One of the major challenges was educating young South Africans as to why foreigners were in the country. The community defended the foreign nationals, and was fighting all criminal elements.
A refugee from the
The Commissioner, United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) was extremely grateful to
The chairperson asked the UNHCR to comment on the kinds of interventions that could be made in addressing some of the key issues. The conditions at Soetwater were terrible and the State was very stretched in its resources. The Department needed to engage with the UNHCR on how the latter could help address issues pertaining to disaster management of refugees.
The UNHCR replied that
A member of the public said that he was confused about what the seminar entailed. He regarded what had been said as merely a political survey. The seminar was offering a platform of views instead of educating people on the plight of refugees. He believed there should have been an analytical survey of what the government was doing to address the plight of foreigners.
The Chairperson said that the seminar was aimed at creating a platform for raising issues and making recommendations. The role of Parliament needed to be appreciated. Parliament was not the Executive. There were task teams that had been set up by the Executive to address the matters. This seminar was not aiming to come up with definitive answers but was a step towards identifying the issues and finding a solution.
Another public representative apologised on behalf of all South Africans. The xenophobic attacks arose from criminal elements. The main problem was that government did not implement policies that made people feel secure and free. There should be offices at the border to create a database of refugees. South Africans were not inherently xenophobic and these attacks were a shame to all South Africans. The public needed to support the initiatives taken by the President. Refugees must also be informed that they were welcome in
The Somali Community Board said that millions of Somalis were displaced as a result of their war. It felt that the problems emanated from the Department of Home Affairs. Refugees did not have the right to employment and therefore performed small jobs, sending their earnings back home. The Somali community charged fair prices for their goods in order assist the poor and contribute to the economy by paying taxes. The Somali citizens did not take any jobs from South Africans, and the issue could have been prevented if there were adequate mechanisms in place.
Mr E Ngcobo (ANC) said that he was a refugee for 15 years.
The Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation noted that xenophobia was not a new phenomenon in
The Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) indicated that several incidences had taken place during the xenophobic attacks, and there was a need to put these into context. It should be noted that apartheid and colonialism were engineered in such a way that the neighbouring countries relied and depended on the South African economy.
A representative from the Black Sash noted that there had been three tiers of response; namely security, relief, and integration.
The meeting was adjourned.
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