Xenophobic attacks ‘could happen again’

2009-06-23 00:00

SOUTH Africans have been given no credible reason to believe that major xenophobic attacks of the sort seen in May last year will not recur in the future, according to the non-governmental organisation Consortium for Refugee and Migrants in South Africa (CoRMSA) on the release of their most recent report “Protecting Refugees, Asylum Seekers and Immigrants in South Africa”.

The report, which highlights how little has been done by the state to address violence against non-nationals who continue to be among the most vulnerable and marginalised in South Africa, notes that the country’s inadequate humanitarian response to last year’s xenophobic attacks augurs poorly for the country’s ability to protect anyone — citizen or otherwise — in the event of a natural or man-made disaster.

While civil society organisations reacted “quickly and flexibly to humanitarian needs” and there were many government employees who invested time, energy and care beyond their formal duties during last year’s attacks, the report says there was “little or no effective national coordination of responses from government and civil society”.

In a hard-hitting introduction to the report, Kaajal Ramjathan-Keogh, the executive committee chair of the consortium, which counts among its members the South African chapter of Amnesty International, Black Sash and Lawyers for Human Rights, notes that despite the arrest of many perpetrators following the 2008 attacks, only a small number have been successfully convicted and the state has been largely silent.

“If the state effects such a low level of retribution, does it mean that this kind of discrimination is acceptable in South Africa?” she asks.

The body of the report goes on to note that despite policy shifts at a national level — the announcement of a migration policy review, visa-free entry for Zimbabweans, a special dispensation which will allow Zimbabweans to remain in the country for six months and a moratorium on deportations — ordinary government officials “continue to invent new and often illegal ways of controlling migration on the ground” while individual police stations and officers “often decide for themselves how to treat suspected ‘illegal foreigners’”.

According to the report, most non-nationals, who make up 4,1% of the urban population and only 1,6% of the rural population, are self-sufficient, bringing with them skills and resources to generate jobs (20% of refugees and asylum seekers surveyed have at some point employed someone else).

“As such,” says the report, “migration is not a threat to South Africans’ economic or physical security. Managed properly it can lead to investment, job creation and a more productive economy.”

Noting the absence of a government inquiry into the causes of the May violence and dismissing a “third-force” or economic competition as motivators, the report notes that “in almost all cases where it occurred, violence was organised and led by identifiable local groups and individuals — primarily official or self-appointed community leaders — who used the attacks to further their political and economic interests.”

The report blames officials’ “visible ambivalence” towards the violence as helping to entrench public convictions that non-citizens are not equal before the law and points to “indications” that some police officers supported or passively tolerated the violence and others were involved in looting.

Other findings are that non-nationals face barriers in accessing health care, education, accommodation, employment and social assistance. On aggregate, Zimbabweans face more acute social and human security challenges than other non-nationals.

Other issues highlighted include abuse of women and children, the need for improved services at refugee reception offices and the need for clarity around refugees’ and asylum seekers rights to access the public healthcare system.

CoRMSA said in a statement it looks forward to working with government to address the challenges identified.

For more on the report, which also makes a range of recommendations, visit www.cormsa.org.za.

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