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South African youth want more action on refugees

Opinion
Our government should take note of the powerful block of new young voters who care deeply about the plight of refugees.

When people are asked about the “global refugee crisis”, the images that come to mind are normally of boats in the Mediterranean, laden with refugees fleeing Libya, Eritrea or Syria.

You might think that South Africa, geographically far removed from the main sites of the crisis in the Middle East and the Mediterranean, has little to contribute to the solution. But a new major report on global youth attitudes shows that South Africa's young people think differently.

Last year, the Varkey Foundation published the Generation Z: Global Citizenship Survey of the attitudes of young people aged 15 to 21 in 20 major countries.

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Syrian and Afghan refugees on a dinghy near the Greek island of Lesbos recently. The writer says, this is the image most people have of the refugee crisis. Picture: Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters

A key finding was that 68% of young people in this country think that the government is doing too little to help solve the global refugee crisis, while just 5% believe it is doing too much.

This is despite the fact that South Africa not only hosts a huge number of refugees, but also has a long history of welcoming them. For many decades, it has attracted migrants from elsewhere in Africa due to its wealth and stability.

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) says the country has 120 000 recognised refugees and 1million asylum seekers with pending cases - more than any other country in the world.

Of course, the journey for refugees does not end when they successfully claim asylum. Although South Africa has an exceptionally liberal asylum policy - once people apply for asylum, they can live and work anywhere in the country and are generally entitled to the same public services as South Africans.

What all countries involved in the refugee crisis are beginning to realise is that a long-term solution requires programmes to incentivise integration. People are now displaced, on average, for 10 to 20 years. Granting legal status to refugees is essential, but states also have to provide incentives for their people to embrace the economic contributions of refugees. Refugees can make a great contribution if given the right chances.

In one documented case, a man fleeing conflicts in Eritrea was so determined to build a better life that he walked 4000km to South Africa. He managed to pursue both work and study and has now gained a Master’s degree in order to teach. Other refugees have started small businesses as vendors, caterers and craftsmen. Many of them make strong contributions to the community and economy, but they find their efforts are sometimes not recognised.

What is needed, among other things, are processes through which refugees can easily access social services, continue with education and have their existing skills, documents and qualifications rapidly recognised. Refugees and migrants of working age also need employment opportunities.

A new South African government paper includes some welcome measures, such as giving migrants more options to work legally in the country. One initiative that some other governments are now testing is to connect skilled migrants with companies that are in need of staff.

The education issue is especially important, because the lack of education is the single factor most disruptive to future chances for resettlement.

Worldwide, only 50% of refugee children attend primary school and the figure drops to 22% for secondary school. Up until 2010, the global school-age refugee population was stable at about 3.5 million children, but since then it has grown by an average of 600 000 each year, and by 30% in 2014 alone.

Even countries like Greece, on the emergency front line of the European crisis, are realising that they have to shift from a short-term model to longer-term planning, including permanent education provision.

Today is World Refugee Day and the UNHCR will use the day to launch its #WithRefugees petition, sending a message to governments that they must work together to do their fair share.

There is no doubt that a positive future for refugees is only possible if funding and help comes from a wide range of countries.

The South African government has, of course, taken in a huge number of refugees over the past few years but it should still take note of the powerful block of new young voters who care deeply about the plight of refugees.

* Vikas Pota is chief executive of the Varkey Foundation.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

Pretoria News

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