Refugees in South Africa
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.

  1. 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 the 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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

Photo: Flickr

Ever since the fall of apartheid, South Africa has been a popular destination for immigrants from the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa and, to a lesser extent, South Asia and the Middle East. Immigrants seeking job opportunities have settled in townships and many have opened shops and businesses.

There are an estimated two to five million immigrants and foreign migrant workers living in South Africa. The most common countries of origin are Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Somalia and Nigeria. Many also come from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Egypt.

But all of this immigration has fueled racial tensions within South Africa. Many South Africans still live in poverty and the official unemployment rate is 25 percent, but many think the real number is higher due to the large informal economy. In poor townships, where the majority of immigrants have settled, unemployment is often near 50 percent.

The high levels of immigration have led to accusations of foreigners taking jobs from locals and of foreign businesses out-competing local ones. Violence against immigrants has become a common occurrence and foreign businesses are often targeted. Most recently, this month has seen a massive wave of anti-immigrant violence in townships in Durban and Johannesburg.

Six people have been killed and thousands of immigrants have been forced from their homes and had their businesses destroyed by mobs. Many are now being housed in refugee camps and several foreign governments have sent buses to evacuate their citizens. The South African government has vowed a swift response and over 300 people have been arrested in connection to the attacks.

Many point to a quote by Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini as the instigator of the recent violence. The king was quoted as saying that immigrants taking away jobs from South Africans “should pack their belongings and go home.” The attacks began soon afterwards, starting in the townships of Durban that are part of the Zulu homeland. Some think he may be charged with inciting hatred. The king has claimed his quote was misinterpreted in the media.

This is not the first case of violence against immigrants. Earlier in January several people were killed and hundreds injured in mob violence against foreign owned businesses. Such incidents have become increasingly recurring and smaller scale attacks on specific shops or individuals are very common. In some cases South African police have been implicated or directly involved.

The worst wave of violence was in May 2008 when riots and mob attacks killed 62 people, most of them foreign immigrants. The incident shocked South Africa and drew attention to the issue of xenophobia for the first time. Since then it has become a major issue, but many accuse President Zuma of not doing enough to address it. Many South Africans have mobilized to fight against xenophobia and feel such attacks are undermining the country’s long struggle for racial equality. These attacks serve as an important reminder of the role poverty plays in creating racial tensions.

– Matt Lesso

Sources: Al Jazeera, BBC 1, BBC 2, BBC 3, Washington Post
Photo: Flickr

The Roma people—also vernacularly referred to as “gypsies”—have become a widely discussed topic in the European Union over the past few years. Despite being Europe’s largest, stateless ethnic minority (more than 10 million people), they are still mired in poverty and bereft of opportunity and political representation all across the continent.

With Romania and Bulgaria, two member states containing a considerably large Roma population, becoming party of the Schengen Area this year, some Western European politicians are deploying xenophobic rhetoric to their own advantages. Much of this xenophobia is targeting Romanian Roma immigrants.

Comprising somewhere between 5-10% of Romania’s total population, an estimated 80% of Romanian Roma population lives in poverty. With the rise of the far-right across Europe, the community has fallen target to racial discrimination and violent abuses; an extremist organization in Romania even suggested that Roma women should be sterilized.

The socio-economic tribulations that grip the Romanian Roma community stem from centuries of segregation and prejudice. Furthermore, the widespread prejudice to view them as unwilling to work and as free riders also contribute to the tension between the majority society and the Roma community.

In many parts of Europe—Western and Eastern alike—Roma people live in segregated communities with inadequate access to water and electricity. They are also at constant risk of forced eviction and hostility from surrounding majority population. The latter of which often manifests itself violently. In many cases, they are relocated to suburban landfills with no access to running water or electricity. With sometimes more than 13 people living in a single room, their hygienic wellbeing is greatly at risk. To make matters worse, being placed in remote locations also deprive the children of the opportunity to attend school since often times they are outside of school bus routes.

In 2012, the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights conducted a survey whose findings were truly shocking for a continent that boasts some of the highest human development indexes in the world. In Romania alone, nearly a quarter of Roma children aged 7 to 15 do not attend school and nearly a third of respondents aged 20 to 64 are unemployed, in contrast to the average of 11% among the country’s non-roma population.

Since Romania has at last joined the Schengen Area and its people have finally received full rights as citizens of the EU, many politicians in more prosperous member states such as the UK have found the anti-immigrant discourse to be a convenient tool in winning over public opinion. Unfortunately, unless the EU soon finds measures to solve the millennium-old prejudice towards the community, the Roma will inevitably be exploited as the political bête noire within the politics of inter-Schengen migration.

– Peewara Sapsuwan

Sources: Amnesty International, Express, European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, Romania-Insider, SPIEGEL Online International
Photo: March Inbetween