The migration dilemma: Searching for a new home

Panelists Efe Atiyio, Khadija Patel and Marc Gbaffou discuss the difficulties asylum seekers face in South Africa and attempt to find solutions to the problem. (Photo: Madelene Cronjé)

Panelists Efe Atiyio, Khadija Patel and Marc Gbaffou discuss the difficulties asylum seekers face in South Africa and attempt to find solutions to the problem. (Photo: Madelene Cronjé)

Migration is as old as the human species itself. Wandering nomads, pastoralists seeking fresh grazing for their herds and adventurers travelling to unknown, distant lands has always been a big part of our history. Religious persecution, wars and globalisation have also forced various groups of people to migrate or emigrate. Under the theme of #MigrationDilemma, Germany’s international broadcaster Deutsche Welle has initiated a multimedia campaign to address the ongoing migrant crisis in Europe. The crisis reached critical levels in 2014 when the collapse of the Libyan regime created more opportunities for the illegal transportation of African migrants into countries such as Italy. 

In South Africa xenophobic violence targets those who have fled violence and economic hardship in other African nations. “Operation Buyelekhaya” (Operation Go Back Home) was organised by the residents of Alexandra in 1995, a year after the first democratic elections, in an effort to rid the township of all foreigners. Since then, xenophobic violence has erupted sporadically in this and other townships, where South Africans attack refugees and loot their shops.

To address this issue and facilitate relationships with global media partners, Mail & Guardian in partnership with Deutsche Welle set up a Critical Thinking Forum on issues related to migration, politics and the media. The #MigrationDilemma panel discussion at Wits Senate House featured journalists, media experts, civil society groups, human rights activists from across the continent and representatives from Deutsche Welle.

South Africa is seen as the economic capital of the African continent, but upon reaching the proverbial promised land many migrants find themselves living in challenging circumstances. The department of home affairs estimates the number of asylum seekers at 200 000 and those who hold refugee status at 90 000 — and this only accounts for documented foreigners. Marc Gbaffou, chairperson of the African Diaspora Forum, claims that South Africa has betrayed African migrants by refusing them access to basic services such as healthcare, education and suitable accommodation. The issue of permits for asylum seekers is a controversial one that has created much debate. Some believe the system is abused by “economic migrants”, who are not fleeing persecution, but merely seeking a better life in a preferred country, resulting in the near collapse of the asylum system in South Africa.

The issue of class also arises, as victims of xenophobic violence are often migrants involved in the township informal economy. According to Lawyers for Human Rights programmes manager Sharon Ekambaram, government’s failure to control the influx of immigrants into low income communities creates ripe conditions for xenophobic violence, due to competition between locals and enterprising immigrants. The creation of a fair, vetted and non-discriminatory documentation process may protect both locals and migrants alike.

Newly elected Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba has been criticised for his crass stance on illegal immigrants. The mayor maintains his threats to arrest and deport are intended only for undocumented foreigners, who are placing a strain on the city’s service delivery systems.

He is not alone — populist politicians who resonate with discriminatory constituencies are making a comeback. In Germany, for instance, the first far-right nationalist party entered Parliament in 2017, which hasn’t happened since the defeat of the Nazis.

The media has a role to play in keeping politicians accountable, and in ensuring foreign citizens are acknowledged as human beings, even if they are undocumented refugees. Foreigners are often soft targets for those seeking scapegoats, and are often subjected to substandard service delivery. But the question remains, would life be better for locals if there were no foreigners? Kwesè TV’s Efe Atiyio emphasised that migrants have a responsibility to protect themselves against opportunistic discrimination by understanding and abiding by the rules of the country they have chosen to live in.

Migration provokes hopes and fears, and touches individuals and nations alike. The African Union’s Vision 2063 is a roadmap for continental development and rests upon seven aspirations. The second aspiration is the realisation of an integrated African continent, politically united, based on the ideals of pan-Africanism and the vision of Africa’s renaissance. Mutually beneficial links must be established with all Africans, even those in the diaspora.

Working towards a continent with seamless borders and careful management of cross-border resources, Africans can utilise dialogue to instigate intra-continental trade of goods. Through improved diplomacy, and a unilateral plan on how best to utilise all resources available on the continent, this can be the model utilised to transfer the necessary skills in the form of human resources to strengthen economies. A similar but more exploitative model was used in the establishment of Johannesburg — migrant mineworkers from Mozambique, Malawi and Lesotho were imported to secure massive wealth for the infamous Randlords.

An audience member raised a critical point on the tendency of nongovernmental organisations to have an antagonistic relationship with the state, at times undermining the rule of law and national sovereignty to protect immigrants. Through manipulating porous borders, they enter countries illegally and exert pressure on service delivery, creating further conflict between democratically elected governments and citizens. Ekambaram raised a counter-argument; he said: “We deal with around 15 000 migrants each year; very few of those have intentions to be undocumented, because it is practically impossible to lead a normal life, especially with a family, without proper documentation.”

In Germany — although it is difficult to compare their situation to South Africa’s — asylum seekers and economic migrants alike often lose their documents in transit, and with them the evidence of their countries of origin, which is a diplomatic nightmare, and here the migration dilemma arises, said Ines Pohl, editor-in-chief of Deutsche Welle.

As the conversation around migration continues, the aim must be to educate the masses on the true causes of migration, and arrive at solutions to the global migration dilemma. Journalists and correspondents from Deutsche Welle’s English for Africa, French for Africa and Hausa departments are now at work on the #MigrationDilemma project in Germany, Italy, Mali, Niger, Senegal and Gambia. They are talking to migrants in the newly-established European reception centres, to find friends and relatives of those who went missing on their way to Europe. They will also be helping local and international efforts or provide jobs and other immediate solutions for young Africans.

African media should be at the forefront of the migration debate, with especially the media in emigrant countries telling their own, unfiltered version of events to reveal the root causes of the social ills and persecution that force so many Africans to risk their lives for the possibility of a better life elsewhere. Perhaps we’ll discover that pan-African solutions are necessary to solve African problems — outsourcing solutions becomes exploitative in the long run.

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