2012 marked the 11th anniversary of World Refugee Day, commemorated every year on 20 June. Thousands of people take time to recognise and compliment the input of people forcibly uprooted from their homes and displaced throughout the world. The annual tribute is noted by an array of events in many countries, incorporating humanitarian workers, civilians, government officials and refugees and asylum seekers. In most corners it is an opportunity to credit the boldness, resilience and dedication of children, women and men who are compelled to escape their native country under threat of torture, brutality and warfare. It is also an opportunity to recognise the contributions that refugees make to the countries that host them. In South Africa, World Refugee Day took a special significance to honour asylum seekers, refugees and non-nationals.
Yet, there are still reports about xenophobia in the country documented by News24 and the Sowetan. Four years ago, the nation came together with a mass pledge of solidarity against xenophobia to say, ‘never and never and never again’.
In May 2008, poverty stricken mobs of local black South Africans invaded informal settlements equipped with machetes, clubs and torches and attacked black immigrants from foreign countries. Physical and commercial insecurity propelled these bloodbath campaigns. This resulted in several hundred maimed, 62 non-nationals killed and mass displacement. The aftermath of xenophobia saw South Africans and non-nationals protest non-violently through marching, collecting clothing, food and blankets for the victimised, conducting vigils and speaking out against violence.
News24 recently reported that 104 people are in court for xenophobic attacks in Limpopo for the charges of public violence, looting shops and malicious damage to property. The suffering of non-South African nationals eking out a living in South Africa has amounted to xenophobic levels requiring collective global justice intervention. It is argued that independent Africa has done more harm to black people than colonialism itself. Organisations corroborate their fear, saying this is not the first hints of possible violence and there is no respect of human dignity, when it comes to non-South Africans.
Celebrated since 2001, World Refugee Day emphasizes unity. There is need to keep strengthening this unity as the only channel of fuelling sustainable peace and development, and upholding this unity against all forms of genocide or xenophobic violence. It is appropriate that much of this year’s celebrations are taking on the theme: ‘One refugee without hope is too many’.
There are refugees and asylum seekers all over the world, on every continent and in every country. The system of migration may change, but the movement of people will always remain that of individuals or families moving to a place that offers them better opportunities. People from many countries migrate to South Africa because of the opportunities it affords them, either economic, or social in that South Africa is not at war and has a liberal constitution, but sadly, due to the intense competition for jobs and housing, many Africans continue to be persecuted once arriving in the country. Unfortunately, with such high unemployment, many South Africans perceive the arrival of foreigners as a threat to their already endangered access to resources. It is unfortunate that so many black Africans are treated as a threat whereas immigrants from other countries are often welcomed as sources of skills, talent and expertise. It is important for any person who is able to contribute positively to South Africa to be recognised as such, wherever they come from, and above else for the human rights of refugees and asylum seekers to be upheld. Rather than automatically treating non-South Africans as competition for resources etc, South Africans should also try to consider what circumstances have forced people to leave their home and think about the type of welcome they would want to experience if the same were to happen to them.
Four years ago, many expressed fury at the lack of action despite signs and warnings, while for others the xenophobic violence came as an absolute surprise. But, nobody can ever again say they did not see it coming. Everybody knows that xenophobia is a problem, and for all the promises made four years ago, how much has changed?
As we celebrated the World Refugee Day, we also remembered that South Africans fled during apartheid and accepted refugee status elsewhere in the world. It is our duty to accommodate and show compassion to refugees who are fleeing persecution in their home countries. We all must raise our voices loudly say "never, never and never again" against xenophobic violence.
- Primrose Ncube, email@example.com