Refugees in South Africa face many hardships as they search for safety. A backlog of refugee applicants leads to difficulty finding jobs and poor access to government services. Meanwhile, many refugees experience prejudice and are blamed for escalating crime.
Ahead are 10 facts about refugees in South Africa.
- The majority of refugees in South Africa come from countries in Northern Africa.
These countries include Angola, Somalia, Liberia, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Many refugees see South Africa as a gateway to other continents such as Europe and North America. South Africa is the wealthiest and most developed part of Africa, making it an ideal place for migrants to seek refuge.
- Refugees flee their countries for many reasons.
Most African refugees flee their home countries because of financial crises, cost of living, military crime or high rates of unemployment. Corrupt governments can create instability that drives people from their homes. For example, so many people died in the 1998 outbreak of fighting in the DRC that it was labeled the world’s deadliest conflict since World War II.
- Refugees often face violence or treacherous terrain while crossing the border.
If migrants are fortunate enough to get past police patrols and wildlife, they may wind up in the hands of gangs known as the guma guma. The guma guma have terrorized migrants fleeing to South Africa for many years. They operate in disguise and behave ruthlessly.
- The South African government is required to protect all refugees.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) “has liberal asylum legislation that incorporates all basic principles of refugee protection including freedom of movement, the right to work and access to basic social services.” This includes access to health facilities and school enrollment.
- South Africa does not have any refugee camps.
Refugees live mostly without assistance in urban areas and must seek out government buildings if they require additional help. One of the UNHCR’s focuses in South Africa is building its capacity to serve refugees.
- Gaining refugee status requires lots of paperwork.
Refugees must obtain a section 22 permit to be protected from deportation. According to the Department of Home Affairs, all migrants who enter the Republic of South Africa must claim to be asylum seekers before receiving asylum transit permits. Migrants then have 14 days to report to the nearest Refugee Reception Office at the Department of Home Affairs.
At the Reception Office, migrants’ fingerprints are recorded and initial interviews are conducted. Permits are valid for six months and allow holders to freely work or study in South Africa until their permits expire.
- It costs nothing to apply for refugee status.
There is no cost to apply for refugee status in South Africa. This contributes to the volume of people fleeing there.
- South Africa has more refugees than it can handle.
Due to the high volume of migrants requesting refugee status in South Africa, the status determination process is overwhelmed with applications. Additionally, social service programs face challenges when asylum seekers are allowed to use various services before conclusive decisions are made about their status.
- Refugees have to fend off xenophobic attacks.
Xenophobia is defined as the hatred or fear of foreigners. Xenophobic violence targeted at migrants began in 2008 and hasn’t let up. In May 2015, approximately 1,000 Burundian and Congolese refugees were forced to flee their South African homes.
- There are refugee supporters in South Africa.
After the 2015 surge in xenophobia, the UNHCR put together a three-tiered refugee reintegration package for around 3,000 people. The package included rental subsidies for two months, two months’ worth of food vouchers and one-time provisions of basic nonfood items. The UNHCR is just one of many organizations using their resources and connections to help South African refugees.
While refugees in South Africa face many hardships both on the journey and at the destination, they have international allies. With the support of the UNHCR and others, refugees in South Africa can find the better lives they seek.
– Terry J. Halloran