/ 20 June 2021

World Refugee Day: A call for inclusion as 82-million people are displaced

South Africa Refugee Protest Unhcr Cape Town Eviction By Police
“It builds up over time, and you don’t talk about it, you just shut people out, because everyone looks at you being a cop, like [you are supposed] to be superhuman, you are not supposed to show any sign of weaknesses.” (Oliver Petrie/Getty Images)

By the end of 2020, more than 82-million people worldwide had been forced to flee their countries. In 2020 alone, 11.2-million people were forcibly displaced as a result of persecution, conflict, violence or human rights violations.

The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) announced its 2020 global displacement numbers on Friday, two days before World Refugee Day on Sunday. This year’s theme of “inclusion” is a global fight for a change of attitudes, given that 200 000 more people were displaced in 2020 than in 2019.

“During 2020, several crises, some new, some long standing and some resurfacing after years” led to the more than 11-million people being displaced, said the UNHCR.

“Children are particularly affected during displacement crises … they account for 30% of the world’s population, but an estimated 42% of all forcibly displaced people.”

Of the more than 82.4-million displaced, 26.4-million are refugees

The UNHCR reports that only 251 000 refugees were able to return to their country of origin in 2020. 

This is the third-lowest number of the past decade, which the agency ascribes to “ongoing insecurity, the absence of essential services and the lack of livelihood opportunities”.

In South Africa, there are more than 266 500 refugees and asylum-seekers. Two-thirds of them do not have the full rights and privileges of refugee status. 

The UNHCR’s spokesperson in South Africa, Kate Pond, previously told the Mail & Guardian that a refugee had various legal protections in the country, such as “rights, privileges, almost on a par with citizens, they have access to education, healthcare, social services, and they can work.” 

But the opposite is true for asylum seekers. “Their permits expire quickly so they are constantly having to renew them, they don’t have the same rights and privileges as a refugee. And some of them, they’ve had their claim stuck in the system for up to a decade, which is essentially a decade in limbo.”

Fortunately, after a generous R147-million injection from the UNHCR to establish the Backlog Project, the appeals of 153 391 asylum seekers and refugees will be processed. The project is expected to run over the course of four years. 

But for Blaise Momili, a refugee and adviser in the Wingfield temporary refugee shelter in Maitland, Cape Town, being a refugee is parallel to being an asylum seeker. 

He says there is a word locals use when referring to a refugee or asylum seeker — kuirikuiri. 

“When you go to the bank or want to rent a house and you have your legal papers, you are still referred to as a kuirikuiri,” says Momili, a Congolese who says he cannot return to his country because of the violent conflict. 

It is more than a year since the two refugee sites, Wingfield and Paint City in Bellville, were erected in April 2020 during the hard lockdown under the Covid-19 Disaster Management Act, The sites became temporary shelters for more than 1 5o0 refugees and asylum seekers, most of whom are from Africa.

Xenophobic attacks and the inability to finalise legal papers led to the initial call to protest on 8 October 2019 in Cape Town. After occupying Greenmarket Square and the Central Methodist Church in the city centre, the city received the green light from the high court in February last year to enforce its bylaws, ending the six-month protest.

Only 400 of these 1 500 protesters have agreed to leave the shelters in accordance with the support offered by the UNHCR — three months’ rent for those who wanted to reintegrate locally, and assistance for those who wanted to return to their countries of origin.

At the end of April, Home Affairs Minister Aaron Motsoaledi said a final notice was given to the protesters “to take the UNHCR’s offer to assist them to reintegrate into local communities or to voluntarily repatriate to their countries of origin”. 

Prior to this, Motsoaledi had warned that “the laws of this country do not cater for refugee camps”. He added that the treasury had told the department that “there is no law in the country that provides the home affairs [department] with a mandate to provide anybody, a national or non-national, with shelter and ablution facilities”.

This means that should the government or the City of Cape Town allocate funds to the shelters, it would be ruled as irregular expenditure. 

The UNHCR offered to provide services — shelter and ablution facilities — for 90 days. It is understood that the 90 days will be up at the end of July.