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South Africa Stands Up for Refugees on World Refugee Day

by Eva Rose Tesfaye on June 23, 2018

Protests demanding better treatment of refugees arose all across South Africa yesterday, World Refugee Day.

South Africa has been a victim of xenophobia for a while now. Attacks on foreigners occur often, looting shops that belong to migrants from Nigeria, Pakistan, Somalia, and other countries, who live in and around the townships. Just last year, police broke up an anti-immigrant protest in the capital of Pretoria.

On top of that many refugees in the country live in what Jean-Claude Kazaku calls a “constant limbo.” The refugee from DRC and the trainer at Sonket Gender Justice said, “You need that paper [refugee status] to rent a house, get a job or open a bank account so when you are constantly renewing temporary documentation for over 15 years, you can’t move forward in life.”


Kazaku joined a group of about 80 activists from Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR), Right2Know, Sonke Gender Justice, African Diaspora Forum, Consortium for Refugee and Migrants in South Africa (CormSA), Treatment Action Campaign, and Doctors without Borders and South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU).

They picketed outside the Desmond Tutu Refugee Reception Office in Pretoria West as well as the Lindela Repartriation Centre in Krugersdorp, demanding better services for asylum seekers. They also asked that the department address the backlog of appeal processes and that the South African Human Rights Commision ensure that refugees’ rights are respected. These demands are outlined in a memorandum emailed to Mandla Madumisa, Director of Asylum Seeker Management at Home Affairs.

In 2011 and 2012 Home Affairs closed the Cape Town and Port Elizabeth Refugee Reception Offices (RROs). The group also demands that these be reopened.

“Asylum seekers who arrived after the closure had to apply at the remaining RROs — Durban, Musina and Pretoria — and then return to the RRO of application for any further administrationof their claims, including permit renewals. The practical reality is that many have to travel very far distances (up to 2,000km) every one to six months to renew their permits,” read the memorandum.

In 2011 and 2012 Home Affairs closed the Cape Town and Port Elizabeth Refugee Reception Offices (RROs). The group also demands that these be reopened. The Supreme Court of Appeal declared that this decision to close them was unlawful. The Cape Town office plans to reopen soon but the Port Elizabeth one remains closed.

Cape Town

In Cape Town, another group of approximately 60 refugee representatives marched to Parliament in Cape Town asking for the refugees to made legale. “Give us papers. Refugees are not criminals,” they chanted. As the local RRO has still yet to re-open despite the promise that it will, several refugee organizations have taken the department to court to speed up the process.

“We are standing nine months later without the centre in Cape Town being opened and no clarity from the Minister as to why,” said Germain Kalombo Ntambue, Director of Africans for Change.

“Today is international refugee day and we took that opportunity to come to Parliament and put some pressure on the Department of Home Affairs,” he added.

“Everywhere I go they ask me for papers, there is no way for me to better my life without having papers in this country, right now I am wasting time sitting at home and not doing anything,” says 19-year-old Azama Damas, a refugee from the DRC. She wants to finish her education but is unable to write matric without papers.

Port Elizabeth

While protests were happening in Cape Town and Pretoria, about 120 people attended a workshop for World Refugee Day in Port Elizabeth at Nelson Mandela University’s Missionvale campus.

“We invited a number of peace builders and community members to discuss discrimination against immigrants. The main aim was to squash the various myths associated with immigrants. We are very much delighted that topics were discussed where locals openly expressed their perceptions of foreigners living in the metro,” said Liesl Fourie, a human rights lawyer at the University’s Refugee rights center.

Fourie believes its impotant to eliminate myths and stereotypes in the community about immigrants, such as ideas that they are taking away South Africans’ jobs and women.

The event aimed at educated peace builders and other residents about the challenges faced by immigrants. A documentary was shown highlighting some of the reasons refugees are forced to leave their homes.

Peace builders are people who know the local languages and culture and live in the local communities. They are trained to resolve conflicts between the immigrants and the local people and also work closely with the police.

“The main problem is that whenever there are service delivery protests, criminals end up targeting our shops. Most of the crimes were carried out by people living in the very community they robbed. We have however seen a significant decline since the peace builders project was introduced,” said Port Elizabeth Foreigners Business Forum chairman, Saidi Ahmed.

South Africa has a long way to go in terms of properly dealing with the influx of refugees but it also has people who are willing to stand up for those refugees’ rights.

Featured Image via Wikimedia/Freedom House

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Eva Rose Tesfaye
Eva Tesfaye has traveled around the world her whole life but thinks of Africa as home. She loves reading novels and watching plays (especially ones with people of color in them). She has a love-hate relationship with her big curly hair.