Migration and Xenophobia Seminar

Home Affairs

19 June 2008
Chairperson: Mr P Chauke (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

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 South Africa, who had moved both for reasons of safety and because they thought it offered them more opportunities. Victimisation was often founded on the flimsiest of grounds, and the problem arose not through hatred but through fear of losing something to the migrants. The gaps in the current systems needed to be addressed and there should be awareness campaigns. The Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs named the foreign policy objectives, saying that collective actions were needed, beginning with economic integration, with particular attention to women. The Minister of Home Affairs stressed the need for education, and South Africans needed to find common humanity. She acknowledged that in the past there had been difficulties around documentation but outlined that her Department had made significant strides. She called for an empowering migration policy that would recognise the skills that migrants brought, and the need for all refugees to be treated properly under the Constitution. The South African Human Rights Commission noted that it had been working with civil society and aimed to prevent future violence. It had noted lack of government presence and first hand monitoring at refuge camps, and the Commission was working to inform refugees of their rights, had called for a moratorium on detentions and deportations, and re-integration of refugees, although this could not be forced.

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 Jubilee Community Church in Observatory said that many refugees had been in the country for two decades, and the system of documentation was very difficult. The United Nations Commissioner for Refugees was extremely grateful to South Africa for hosting so many foreigners, and said that the Commission was willing to work closely both with government and refugees to provide technical assistance, although it would not take on the roles that local government should play, and urged that the Disaster Management budgets and resources should be called into play. A member of parliament said it was important to differentiate between political and economic refugees.

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 South Africa were in fact creating jobs for themselves and others, not displacing South Africans from jobs and were supporting the tax base and the communities. The Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation noted that xenophobia was not a new phenomenon in South Africa, and noted that government had been slow to respond, with the quickest assistance coming from ordinary citizens and NGOs. The humanitarian needs of the refugee sites must be attended to, and it pleaded for cautious and sensitive re-integration, as well as giving support to the victims who had suffered trauma. The Congress of South African Trade Unions claimed that the attacks were rooted in the apartheid economy and deep rooted negative perceptions. It criticised those who took advantage of migrant workers. It called for the development of early warning systems, redressing of economic imbalances, and political consciousness campaigns. Black Sash noted that much of the looting had been done by children, and there was a need to look at the underlying reasons for this before attempting reintegration

Meeting report

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 South Africa from many countries. Africans moved where they felt they would be safe, but also where they felt there was opportunity.  Mr Bapela made comparison to refugees in other countries. He said refugees in United States, for example, enjoyed basic civil rights, rights to asylum, medical case, education and employment. They were also able to get food stamps and low-income housing. The obligations of the refugees in such countries included obeying the laws and paying taxes once employed.
 
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 Africa.  The All Africa Campaign would get rid of words like “kmwerewere” to fix the dialogue surrounding refugees.

The Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ms Sue van der Merwe, introduced the foreign policy objectives of South Africa. She said South Africa needed to set an example as a non-racial, non-sexist society with respect for human life. The continent needed collective actions to fight for a better continent for all, and therefore, a better world for all. International trade and support must be done alongside strengthened domestic production. The starting point was economic integration in the region.  She said there also needed to be a full emancipation of females on the continent. The enhanced role of women would help Africa’s foreign policy.

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 South Africa must ask itself just how united it really was.

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 Africa. It was the lack of such programmes in the communities that gave rise to the negative perceptions, and he called for institutions such as the SAHRC to assist in communities.

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. South Africa needed to adopt and maintain liberal immigration policies, as it was the way forward. There was a need to manage immigration matters carefully to ensure maintenance of national security, and the Organisation would continue to fight xenophobia and racism.

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 Jubilee Community Church in Observatory said that many refugees had been in the country for two decades, and the system of documentation was very difficult. As a result of the documentation system, refugees found it difficult to open up bank accounts. The complaint that refugees were taking jobs was not new, and the South Africans should note that jobs were being created by them, rather than being taken from the locals.

The Commissioner, United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) was extremely grateful to South Africa for hosting a great number of foreigners. The attacks had made people rethink issues such as migration and immigration, and it was important to acknowledge the issues, several of which must be brought to the fore. The most important was that refugees were in South Africa to stay. The idea that refugees could be repatriated to their home countries was impractical. There needed to be an integration of refugees into the communities. South Africa was a key country of asylum seekers, and the challenge was ensuring the safety and security of those asylum seekers. South Africa was signatory to various treaties and was faced with the challenge of implementing the policies. The UNHCR was ready to work with government authorities and the refugees closely.

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 South Africa was not state in failure. The responsibility of ensuring human rights rested with the government. There were funded structures in place that were aimed at addressing the disaster management. UNHCR merely provided technical assistance and assisted local government. Its role, however, was not to take over the work and responsibility of local government. It should be noted that some of the sites that had been identified for the housing of refugees were insufficient and were in poor condition. The issue of registration was very crucial, as it was important to register people who were at the sites.

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 South Africa. The government should engage with the South African communities and empower the Department of Home Affairs.

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. South Africa cared for refugees and was taking the xenophobic attacks seriously. It was however important to differentiate between political and economic refugees. During the apartheid days, South Africans were political refugees. In many countries refugees were registered, and if they caused any problems they would be deported back to their country of birth. The issue of refugees was a delicate manner and it needed to be delicately addressed.

The Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation noted that xenophobia was not a new phenomenon in South Africa. South Africa had a history of attacking the vulnerable and people who were perceived as “outsiders”. There was also a competition for resources, and many people thought that they were not being heard. During the attacks ordinary South Africans and Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs) were first to respond but government was very slow. South Africa needed to go forward in preventing a recurrence, and government should address the humanitarian needs of the refugee sites. There were many areas of concern, such as protection within the refugee camps, and the institution asked government to address the issue responsively. There was a need to exercise caution in integration, as if this was not done correctly there would be serious consequences. Support should also be provided to the victims of the attacks who had experienced major trauma.

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. South Africa still needed to find ways of transforming the apartheid economy, and see how the media, religious and educational institutions had perpetuated negative perceptions. The apartheid era led to the perpetual under-development of Southern African economies and there should be a redistribution of wealth. There were many employers who took advantage of migrant workers. This also distorted the labour markets. South Africa needed to develop early warning systems and redress the regional economic imbalances. Economic partnership agreements threatened regional economic stability. Civil society should have been brought in to inform the Departments of Foreign Affairs and Home Affairs on the dangers of xenophobia. There also needed to be educational campaigns to promote political consciousness.

A representative from the Black Sash noted that there had been three tiers of response; namely  security, relief, and integration. South Africa was currently in the integration phase. After the attacks, the Black Sash had taken affidavits on behalf of foreigners, and noted that there were lessons to be learned from these. In Western Cape many of the attacks took the form of looting of shops belonging to foreign nationals, and many of those arrested for the looting were children, which added a new dimension to the government’s commitment to prosecute those responsible. There was a need to examine underlying issues before integration took place. There was also no clarity on what was being done on the documenting of foreign nationals.

The meeting was adjourned.

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