Daily Maverick 04 November 2019

The events of this past week reflect a failure of humanity to adequately provide for and protect a group of displaced and persecuted people who have fled all they know in order to survive and attempt to build a life for their families.

Walking towards the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) offices in Tshwane, one is greeted by the smell of uncollected waste and buzzing flies. Small children, their innocence shielding them from the reality of why they find themselves on these pavements, play among it all. The pavement is lined with makeshift beds, cardboard boxes and tents.

The lattice fencing around the offices is being used to hang up laundry as the refugees occupying the UNCHR street have been there since 8 October – an effective three weeks. Interspersed in the crowds are signs detailing the reason for their presence. The united African nations of people gathered there are desperately asking to be taken out of South Africa.

Justine, who is from Democratic Republic of Congo, says she has been in South Africa since 2008 and is tired of the way South Africans treat refugees. She describes xenophobic attacks where people are beaten, hacked with pangas and set alight and burnt to death. She says this was a common occurrence where she lives in Mabopane, a township in Tshwane.

Another woman says she thinks one of the biggest issues in South Africa is a lack of appreciation and distinction between refugees and foreign migrants.

Refugees are people who flee their home countries for fear of persecution usually because of war or natural disaster. They have lived through trauma and violence and are seeking a place of safety or refuge as the term suggests.

Maliyamungu Ngenge, one of the leaders of the sit-in, was emphatic that the reason they were at the UNHCR is to seek assistance in mitigating against the xenophobic attacks they faced.

He said children at schools are taunted and called derogatory words like kwerekwere. Ngenge also referenced inflammatory utterances from South African leaders, most recently from outgoing Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba, which he felt fuelled the violence and gave South Africans licence to harass them.

Maliyamungu Ngenge, centre foreground, part of the refugee leadership committee, flanked by fellow refugees at the UNHCR offices in Tshwane. (Photo: Zukiswa Pikoli)

Ngenye said he had been physically attacked at least three times since the 2008 xenophobic flare-ups and in one of the attacks his shop was looted. He said South African leaders needed to urgently intervene and not be divisive.

Home Affairs’ response to the crisis has been lacklustre and there has been a bottleneck with the issuing of asylum-seeker documentation, which leads to the victimisation of refugees – by police harassment or in the form of exploitation by unscrupulous employers who pay pittance wages.

Recently, Amnesty International released a report titled “Living in Limbo: Rights of Asylum Seekers Denied” which details the dire state of South Africa’s asylum-seekers management system.

“The consequence of the failures in the asylum management system is that asylum seekers live in limbo, without permanent status, for up to 19 years. The effects of this are multifaceted and include financial, physical and psychosocial elements. They regularly have to travel long distances (900- 1,900km every one to six months) to renew their asylum seeker permits in order to remain documented. This affects their ability to get decent and permanent work, which can make them vulnerable to unscrupulous business people and land them in precarious employment situations. Inability to remain documented hinders their rights to access basic education and healthcare, and makes them vulnerable to harassment, arrest and detention,” it noted.

While in Pretoria the police have not been called in to forcibly remove the refugees at the UNHCR offices as has been the case in the Cape Town refugee sit-in, the violence and indignity of having to prostrate themselves as they line the street fighting for their right not to be violated persists.

The government often beats its chest about being a government of the people, adhering to its inclusive Constitution that seeks to protect the human rights of all in its society, including refugees and migrants. The Constitution specifically affirms the rights of migrants and refugees, and yet looking at how the Cape Town refugee sit-in was handled it would appear at odds with those rights. It is a very disappointing reality that people should have to resort to forcing themselves into the conscience of the government to elicit a response. 

The state is still incoherent on its plan of action to rectify the issue of inefficient processing of asylum-seeker documentation. One of the issues that this refugee crisis has highlighted is the vulnerability that comes with integrating within already strained low-income communities where people have little to no knowledge of what the difference between a migrant and refugee is. 

The events of this past week reflect a failure of humanity to adequately provide for and protect a group of displaced and persecuted people who have fled all they know in order to survive and attempt to build a life for their families. The expectation to do all we can to assist as a country is not because thousands of South Africans were themselves once displaced and refugees during apartheid. The issue is that helping those in need is the right thing to do. Our humanity depends on it. 

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