'SA needs its neighbours'

June 20 was World Refugee Day and South Africa had a long way to go to protect the rights of foreigners among us. In the cold of winter, many of them now huddle in settlements with false hopes of resettlement abroad, or of reintegration to potentially hostile communities. Our hearts are with them and the hundreds of thousands of people throughout the region who depend on them.

A report launched last week by the Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in South Africa (CoRMSA), drawing on contributions from its national membership, outlines how the recent violence has added impoverishment and indignity to foreigners’ long histories as victims of exclusion, exploitation and extortion.

The recent wave of violence has upset us all. Clearly we have failed in efforts to ensure that all people’s lives and livelihoods are safeguarded. Many of us feel discouraged or despondent. But rather than resign, we must draw strength and guidance from what we have witnessed. Let this be a turning point where together we recognise and transcend the limits of citizenship by extending protection to all who live in South Africa.

In going forward we must learn from the path that has brought us here. The report offers three important reflections to guide us:

First, the recent violence is just an extreme example of how non-nationals are treated as “outsiders” in our society by members of the public, civil servants and government leaders and excluded from the services, welfare and dignity they are guaranteed by South African law and the Constitution.

Second, while South Africa must improve its policing practices and promote tolerance it must also revisit and fundamentally revise the way it manages migration from the region and further afield. Despite widespread claims that the solution lies in halting migration, this is neither possible nor is it a solution. The solution lies not just with the department of home affairs but must involve the presidency, local government, the Human Rights Commission, the departments of social development and safety and security. In his long-awaited comment on the xenophobic attacks, finally delivered on May 25, President Thabo Mbeki argued that the country’s policies have always promoted the peaceful integration of migrants. This is not true. Now is the time to make it so.

Third, protecting foreigners’ rights is a responsibility we owe ourselves. Twelve years ago South Africa engendered one of the world’s most remarkable constitutions. This document not only swears to right past injustices, but to protect the lives and human dignity of all who live here. But these promises are nothing if we do not make them real.

Without migrants—some who flee poverty and violence and others who are simply looking for a better life—South Africa would be a much poorer place. With today’s skills shortages, sectors such as agriculture, industry and education can thrive by drawing on the energy and skills of those from beyond our borders.

And as these industries grow, so too will opportunities for South African citizens. They will expand further as remittances from South Africa spread wealth throughout the region in ways that nourish markets and promote political stability. South Africa depends—as it always has—on its neighbours and those from much further away. By neglecting, denigrating and excluding foreigners living here, we erode bonds to those who will sustain us.’

Our duty to assist is more than an obligation to refugees fleeing violence, oppression and persecution elsewhere in the world. And we do not embrace strangers solely to repay them for hastening apartheid’s demise. Our debts are real, but whether someone is from Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Somalia, China, or India should make no difference. If they are here, ready to contribute and ready to obey our laws, we have no reason to wish them ill.

World Refugee Day is intended to draw attention to the challenges facing refugees and migrants across the world. But our campaign cannot be solely about the rights of refugees, asylum seekers and other immigrants. Rather, it is about building a South Africa where everyone’s rights are protected and their welfare secured.
Professor Loren B Landau is director of the Forced Migration Studies Programme at Wits and chair of the executive committee of the Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in South Africa. A full copy of the report is available at www.migration.org.za

About World Refugee Day
World Refugee Day, celebrated on June 20, acknowledges and celebrates the courage, resilience and cultural contributions of refugees worldwide.

This day was previously commemorated as African Refugee Day in a number of African countries. It was established by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in 2000 to try to solve the global problem that refugees faced.

The UNHCR, which has its headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, protects and supports refugees at the request of a government or the UN and assists in their return or resettlement. The refugee challenge is one that continues to increase, with more than 40-million refugees worldwide.

Refugees are forced from their homes daily because of persecution, war, exclusion, environmental pressures and competition for scarce resources. They end up in exile, often forced to live in tents in crowded camps with a lack of food, water, healthcare and education. In many places violence and fighting continue to threaten their lives, even after they have left their countries.

World Refugee Day raises international awareness and tries to provide refugees with hope for a better future.

The theme of this year’s World Refugee Day is protection. Celebrations will take place all over the world for a week and will include fundraising as well as events planned for refugee camps.

This year the UNHCR will attempt to recreate refugee camp life in about 20 capitals around the world including Sydney, Rome and London in what the UNHCR website calls “the most ambitious and spectacular World Refugee Day celebrations ever.”—Compiled by Lucy Kruger.

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