Xenophobia in South Africa

Wednesday, 19 November, 2008 - 12:11

Violence against foreign nationals is not new to South Africa; the problem has just worsened.

In May this year, South Africa witnessed widespread xenophobic attacks. Violence against foreign nationals is not new to the country; the problem has just worsened. Despite this and much speculation of the causes and triggers of the violence, no effective measures have been taken to address this conflict.

A number of reports released after the attacks, highlight various issues contributing to xenophobia, some of which include poor service delivery and competition for resources.

However, a recent report by the Forced Migration Studies Programme reveals that the type of leadership within communities might have an impact on whether or not xenophobic attacks occur in certain communities. This talks to issues of governance and begs the question, how effective are governance structures in communities today? How responsive and accountable are these structures to the needs of communities and how legitimate are they? If xenophobia is to be addressed, there is need to pay attention to these issues.

The reintegration of foreign nationals displaced by the violence is still a challenge. Without a workable reintegration plan/strategy from government, civil society has had to step in and assist those struggling to find their feet after the attacks. While various civil society organisations continue to assist with reintegration, there may still be people who will not benefit from this as civil society does not have the resources to sustain this process. It is thus critical that local government use the existing disaster management structures and processes to provide replacement housing for non-nationals displaced because of xenophobic attacks.

Ignoring the fears of foreigners returning to their communities, government closed the temporary safety sites, claiming that conditions were right for people to go back. As a result foreigners are forced to live in cities, struggling to pay high rental costs for accommodation. This is an indication that foreigners’ needs and welfare are still not a priority.

Xenophobia is not the only challenge faced by refugees in South Africa. Upon their arrival in the country, asylum seekers have to go through the asylum process. This requires them to present themselves at one of the six Refugee Reception Offices in the country to apply for asylum. Over the years, this has not been a positive experience for thousands of refugees and asylum seekers. They have had to endure long queues, deal with corrupt officials, face language barriers and many other problems. While some of these problems persist today, some positive changes have been noted. However, gaining access to these offices still remains the biggest challenge.

Many refugees and asylum seekers are not able to access treatment at public clinics and hospitals. When trying to access these services refugees and asylum seekers are often discriminated against because of the type of documentation they carry. At times this is purely based on the fact that they are not South African citizens. This discrimination has created a parallel system whereby refugees and asylum seekers seek treatment at sites run by NGOs.

Accommodation is another challenge faced by refugees and asylum seekers in the country. This group often seek housing through the private housing sector because of exclusion from the national housing policies. Refugees and asylum seekers are often forced to pay exorbitant rental costs in comparison to South African’s. In some instances, landlords refuse to rent out to refugees and asylum seekers as they often do not understand the legal documents carried by them.

Many refugees today are not able to access social assistance. After years of lobbying and advocacy by a number of organisations in the sector for refugees access to social assistance, disabled refugees can now apply for disability grants. Refugees can also apply for the foster child grant in respect of children. However, there is still a gap. Refugee children whose parents do not have the means to make ends meet are excluded from obtaining the Child Support Grant. Isn’t a refugee child also a child? What makes a refugee child different from a South African child?

The issues and the challenges refugees face cut across various human rights fields. However, there has not been much collaboration between organisations working on broad human rights issues and those working in the refugee rights sector. This has often resulted in refugee challenges being addressed in isolation to the broader human rights issues. This separation of refugee issues from the broader human rights issues has also contributed in some ways in refugees having difficulty in accessing the various services that they need.

However, in the aftermath of the xenophobic attacks, we saw a mobilisation and collaboration by other organisations whose mandate is not specifically on refugees but were driven to act by the violation of human rights of the affected people. There is a great need therefore to further strengthen these relationships if challenges facing refugees in the country are to be effectively addressed. After all refugees are human beings and have rights.

Xenophobic attacks have not stopped to this day. The Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in South Africa (CoRMSA) continues to receive reports of xenophobic attacks or threats thereof in various parts of the country. The question then arises, what will it take to end this? This is not a responsibility of government alone, but requires collective engagement from all stakeholders. It is critical however, that government play a leading role in this process. History will judge us if we fail to address this issue effectively now rather than later.

When all has been said and done, the issue is not about foreign nationals and their rights, but about the safety of all who live in this country. It might be foreign nationals today but who will it be tomorrow?

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