Avoiding the X word -- Jo'burg responds to refugees

Johannesburg, a favoured destination for migrants and refugees from around Africa and the world, is examining its migration policies—belatedly, critics argue.

It is estimated that between three to six million “undocumented foreigners” currently live in South Africa; in addition, more than 400 000 asylum seekers and 50 000 refugees live in the country, with large representations from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Somalia, and Ethiopia, according to South Africa’s Department of Social Development 1998-2008 review.

At a two-day international conference hosted in Johannesburg on June 28 and 29—tackling the topic, “How to benefit from human mobility in reaching professional objectives”—commentators noted that prosperity had made South Africa, and Johannesburg in particular, into a preferred destination for migrants and refugees.

“Economic growth makes this country a target for migration, regular and irregular,” said Murat Daoudov, a Turkish city official.

“The reality is moving ahead faster than the agencies are able to adapt to them and make new policies.”

The conference was held in partnership with The Hague Process (THP), an organisation that strives to help shape public policy on issues relating to migrants, asylum seekers, and human trafficking.

One theme pervading the conference was business-city partnerships, and how they were necessary in addressing refugee and migrant issues.

Communication breakdown
Johannesburg has yet to develop a framework to ensure effective legal management of migrants, who in many cases lack access to basic services, education, and the right to seek employment—which was promised to refugees and asylum seekers in the 1998 Refugee Act.

Delegates from Johannesburg expressed frustration about the poor communication on migrant issues between the city and national officials, largely attributing this breakdown to a lack of initiative on the part of the city to reach out more persistently to the national government.

“Local government concerns have not been expressed very clearly or very strongly at the national level, and I think it’s high time for that,” said Aurelia Segatti, senior research fellow at the African Centre of Migration and Society (ACMS) at the University of the Witwatersrand.

Segatti said collaboration between the city and government was critical to amending the country’s contradictory documentation laws, which required undocumented migrants to leave South Africa in order to obtain documentation to work in the country.

During the conference, enterprise business representatives criticised the city for failing to collaborate with black businesses in townships and for not working more aggressively to develop joint programs on poverty and education. The legacy of apartheid town- and city-planning was another factor that consigned migrants to living areas far away from economic activity.

National concern
Human rights groups have denounced the South African government for trying to manage migrant populations through deportation, which has risen steeply in recent years, with increases of 12.8% per annum between 2002 and 2007.

They have also criticised the government for failing to inculcate within the country’s citizens a respect for—and obligation to uphold—refugee and migrants’ rights: South Africa has not signed the United Nations International Convention of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families.

The “X word
Although the conference extensively referred to the nation’s need for “social cohesion” among migrants and South Africans, the word “xenophobia” was almost never uttered during the two-day affair.

“Obviously, if the city is talking about social cohesion, they’re trying to address an issue relating to xenophobia,” said Paul Verryn, bishop of the Central Methodist Church in Johannesburg and a prominent proponent of refugee human rights in the city.

Migrants are stereotyped in South Africa, accused of stealing jobs and propelling the trade of illegal drugs. With xenophobic sentiments among citizens on the rise since the 1990s, according to studies conducted by the Southern African Migration Project (Samp), migrants continue to be targets of violence and police harassment.

While government representatives may try to brush the issue aside, community leaders say the spectre of xenophobia looms large in the future of migrants to the country.

“Sometimes I think we are sitting on a time bomb,” said Verryn, on the potential for future attacks, particularly with the upcoming dispensation of Zimbabwean migrants scheduled to conclude by the end of July. “The constant harassment by police, and the attacks we hear about ... don’t bode well for us [South Africans] dealing with our prejudices.”

The 2008 attacks
The 2008 xenophobic attacks, which left 62 people dead, several hundred injured, and much migrant-owned property destroyed, reminded the city of what can happen when social and economic tension between nationals and migrants remain unaddressed.

One victim of the attacks, Jean-Pierre A Lukamba Om, a refugee and the chairperson of the Refugee Help Desk for South Africa, was taking the taxi to work in Johannesburg on May 17 2008 when he asked the driver where the taxi would stop; his accent revealed his foreign nationality to those in the vehicle.

“Someone spoke to me in Zulu, and I didn’t understand,” he said. “And then they started to beat me up in the minibus.”

Lukamba Om was forced to leave the DRC because he was a member of the Rally for Congolese Democracy (RCD).

Even though the attacks occurred three years ago, government initiatives such as the 2008 Anti-Xenophobic and Common Citizenship Programme, designed to promote social cohesion in the country, have not yet achieved the success they had hoped for.

Verryn said xenophobia is his “most serious concern” about the future of South African migrants and that the national government must send a message to its people that the rights and human dignity of migrants are worth protecting.

“When we migrate to South Africa, we don’t know the laws and legislation,” Lukamba Om said. “That is why I went to form an NGO, to be a bridge between the South Africans and the migrants.”

He added that the country’s citizens should sympathise with refugees, as South Africans face similar circumstances when migrating to other parts of the world.

Migrants as economic opportunity
The final report at the conference pushed for the city and businesses to approach migrants’ presence in the workforce as an opportunity for high- and low-skilled workers to exchange skills.

According to Segatti, migrants are on average more educated than South Africans, and nearly half are entrepreneurs.

Not only do they exchange culture and technology with their host country, but if they do return to their country of origin, they can share their skill sets in another workforce, which represents an opportunity for economic growth in the African continent and ultimately in South Africa itself.

However, the first concern of the government is tracking “the issue of knowing who’s here,” according to Thuli Mlangeni, assistant director of the Migration Unit of the City of Johannesburg, as the national census is easily skewed by language barriers.

Mlangeni noted that migrants’ skills should be assessed and recorded in order for them to integrate smoothly into the workforce, and that cities and business should collaborate in collecting this data.

According to Loren Landau, ACMS director, what migrants most need is the same as what any resident needs in South Africa: housing, employment, security, etc.

“There’s very little need for specialised services, but rather a need to consider how existing services can be expanded to meet the needs of a wide variety of marginalised groups,” Landau said.

Though he said fortifying city-business partnerships was just one strategy to help address migrant issues, Landau claimed that the issues were rooted in broad social and economic practices and policies, and could only be addressed through “a wide set of actors”.

“Migrants are a rare gift to this country at this time,” Verryn said. “I think their presence will help South Africans to see themselves more clearly as African.”

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