Africa, Development & Aid, Headlines, Human Rights, Migration & Refugees, Population

RIGHTS-SOUTH AFRICA: Not Quite the Welcome Mat

Moyiga Nduru

JOHANNESBURG, Aug 19 2005 (IPS) - They are trends that show little sign of abating: the influx of refugees and economic migrants to South Africa, and the extent to which these persons become the target of xenophobia.

“We are an attractive destination in Africa: we can’t run away from this,” Zonke Majodina, deputy commissioner at the South African Human Rights Commission, said this week. She was speaking at a two-day conference on xenophobia that took place in South Africa’s commercial hub of Johannesburg, starting Thursday. (The Human Rights Commission, also based in Johannesburg, is a government institution.)

Africans have flocked to South Africa since the demise of apartheid in 1994. Some estimate the number, including those living in the country illegally, to be over five million. This includes a substantial number of Zimbabweans who have been driven out of their country by the economic and political crisis there.

“An estimated three million Zimbabweans live in South Africa today: it is estimated 30,000 Zimbabweans are crossing into South Africa every month,” Gabriel Shumba, chairman of the Pretoria-based Zimbabwe Exile Forum, told IPS this week.

Daniel Molokela, a Zimbabwean lawyer who works for the Peace and Democracy Project, an non-governmental organisation (NGO) located in Johannesburg, puts the number of Zimbabweans in South Africa at closer to two million.

As the number of new arrivals has spiraled, so have feelings of animosity towards them in a country plagued by poverty and unemployment officially pegged at 26.5 percent – but which various analysts say is closer to 40 percent.

“Since 1994 we have seen a growing hatred (towards) and ignorance of the rights of immigrants and asylum seekers,” noted Majodina.

While South African police have a role to play in dealing with illegal migrants, troubling reports have emerged about their conduct – even towards foreigners who have obtained documents allowing them to stay in the country legally.

According to Majodina, police routinely confiscate and destroy refugees’ documents in order to justify arresting them. “Refugees struggle for months to get a document. Then law enforcement officers tear them up whenever they stop and search suspected immigrants. It must be a traumatising experience,” she said.

“Every week we have to go and retrieve people from Lindela who have been wrongly arrested,” Majodina added, this in reference to Lindela Repatriation Centre, where illegal immigrants awaiting deportation are detained. The centre is located on the outskirts of Johannesburg.

A recent survey done by the University of the Witwatersrand, based in Johannesburg, found that 71 percent of refugees interviewed said they were stopped by the police, compared to 47 percent of South Africans.

In a paper entitled ‘Sustainable Urban Livelihoods in an Era of Migration: Xenophobia’s Impact on Gauteng’s Development Trajectory’, Loren Landau makes similar observations. (Gauteng is a province of South Africa, located in the north of the country.)

“As police seek to overcome their apartheid-era stigma and supplement their meagre incomes, they are exploiting poor oversight, xenophobia.and immigrants’ vulnerabilities,” he notes. “Non-South Africans living or working in Johannesburg, for example, consequently report having been stopped by the police far more frequently than South Africans.”

Sally Peberdy of the Southern African Migration Project – a research initiative funded by Britain and Canada – said xenophobia in South Africa was fuelled by ignorance of what lies beyond the country’s borders.

While teaching a geography course at a South African university, for example, she discovered that her students could not name countries on a map of Southern Africa. “It was hopeless (but) it wasn’t their fault,” Peberdy observed. During apartheid, few attempts were made to teach pupils about Africa.

A similar tale came from Michael Neocosmos, a professor of sociology at the University of Pretoria who is writing a book on xenophobia in South Africa, to be entitled ‘From Foreign Native to Native Foreigners’. “Once I had a stomach problem, and my doctor asked me whether I had been to Africa. I asked myself ‘Where am I now? Am I not in Africa?’,” he recalled.

The situation is further complicated, added Neocosmos, by race. The darker you are, he said, the more likely you are to be considered a foreigner. The lighter you are, the more likely you are to be seen as South African.

“Thirty percent of people arrested by police on suspicion of being illegal immigrants are South Africans. They are picked up because they are too dark and they happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time,” observed Neocosmos.

Abeda Mbamjee of the Refugee Unit at the University of the Witwatersrand said these arrests can have dire consequences: “Sometimes South Africans get deported to Swaziland and Mozambique.”

Certain migrants and asylum seekers resort to forging documents – some in desperation, after months of waiting for the papers to be issued through legal channels.

“We do have asylum seekers who abuse the system by forging documents. We are working on new documents that contain security features,” Busisiwe Mkhwebane-Tshehla, who is in charge of refugees at the Department of Home Affairs, told the conference Thursday.

Since 1994, about 186,000 asylum seekers have applied for refugee status in South Africa. But, only about 29,000 have been recognised as refugees, noted Mkhwebane-Tshehla.

“New figures will be released by the end of the year. It will determine whether asylum applications have gone up or dropped,” she said in an interview with IPS.

Some accuse the media of exacerbating xenophobia by relentlessly portraying the nationals of certain countries as criminals. “It’s wrong for the media to paint all drug lords and prostitutes as Nigerians,” Khathu Mamaila, deputy editor of the City Press newspaper, told the gathering.

He said immigrants from Europe, North America, Russia, India, Pakistan and China did not often experience xenophobia in South Africa: “The face of illegal immigrants is exclusively black.”

These observations were echoed by William Bird, director of the Media Monitoring Project – a Johannesburg-based NGO. “White foreigners are seldom represented as illegal migrants,” he noted.

In the University of the Witwatersrand survey, 85 percent of South African respondents thought crime had increased in Johannesburg in recent years – with most blaming this trend primarily on immigrants.

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