Educate on shared humanity of foreigners

2011-06-25 17:31

South Africa finds itself in the unenviable position of being the country with the largest number of asylum-seekers. As the world commemorated World Refugee Day this week, Lucas Ledwaba spoke to UNHCR Southern Africa representative Sanda Kimbimbi.

UNHCR Southern Africa representative Sanda Kimbimbi talks to us as the world commemorated World Refugee Day this week.

Approximately 181 000. This is the number of ­asylum applications received by the Department of Home Affairs last year alone.

It is also a fifth of the total number received globally during the same period, making South Africa the world’s largest recipient of individual applications for ­asylum.

South Africa’s smooth transition to democracy 17 years ago has made it the destination of choice for thousands of people fleeing political repression and persecution.

The country has also attracted a large number of people in search of economic opportunities, particularly those from neighbouring Zimbabwe and Mozambique.

The situation brings with it ­immense challenges, especially for Home Affairs, whose refugee ­reception centres deal with huge ­volumes of asylum applications daily.

These centres have drawn ­criticism from non-governmental ­organisations and human rights groups, who cite the slow system for processing applications which results in applicants having to sleep on the streets for days.

The influx of foreigners has also seen a rise in xenophobic attacks on foreign nationals.

But Sanda Kimbimbi, who heads the United Nations High Commission for Refugees ­(UNHCR) in Southern Africa, says that despite mounting ­challenges, there has been progress on the part of government for the past two years.

Kimbimbi says that the process of determining whether an ­asylum seeker qualifies for ­refugee status is complex.

“You have an individual who presents what he purports to be facts. It takes time to validate these, which is the reason we have backlogs,” he says.

The UNHCR does not itself handle asylum applications, but offers advice, training and support to governments.

More than 140 000 asylum ­applications received by Home ­Affairs last year were from Zimbabweans, but only 0.5% of the ­applicants were granted refugee status, which Kimbimbi believes needs review.

He explains: “The Zimbabwean situation is very special and it has to be looked at with great care. I ­believe more Zimbabweans should be recognised (as refugees).

“A Zimbabwean might come and say: ‘I came here to find work’. The application is dismissed ­because it does not qualify the ­person as a refugee.

“But if you look deeper, you would find that people cannot find work there because of political ­affiliations and threats of persecution, which makes their cases very different.”

He says some applicants do not understand the concept of what constitutes a ­refugee and don’t know how to present their cases.

Also, understaffing and overcrowding mean that officials do not always have the time to ­conduct thorough interviews.

“We say that Zimbabweans should be seen as a special group. There should be a temporary ­special dispensation to allow ­Zimbabweans to work and live here,” says Kimbimbi.

In April 2009, government placed a moratorium on deporting Zimbabweans and introduced a 90-day visa on demand for passport holders.

In September last year, ­government began documenting ­Zimbabwean citizens living in South Africa.

“We are not saying SA should open its borders and allow all Zimbabweans to come in,” he says.

But Kimbimbi argues that a ­similar agreement to that which South Africa signed with Mozambique four years ago – relaxing visa ­requirements and allowing people from that country to live and work here – should also apply to ­Zimbabweans.

The 2008 xenophobic attacks led to calls for establishing refugee camps.

Instead, according to Kimbimbi, steps should be taken to ­encourage integration and ­educate people that foreigners are human beings and are not going to harm them.

“UNHCR does not advocate the opening of refugee camps in South Africa. People should move freely and not be dependent on anyone. You need resources to keep people in camps.

“You need to feed people, ­provide them with healthcare. We believe that people have to lead a meaningful life,” he says.

To mark World Refugee Day, the UNHCR has produced a CD titled My Brother’s Keeper featuring Stoan of Bongo Maffin and vocalist Zonke Dikana, as well as a radio soapie with the same message.

“It will be aired on community radio stations and broadcast in various languages across the country,” says Kimbimbi.

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