Refugees at the Central Methodist Church, where violence broke out. Picture: Brendan Magaar/African News Agency (ANA)
Refugees at the Central Methodist Church, where violence broke out. Picture: Brendan Magaar/African News Agency (ANA)

It's worse for refugees when your place of asylum doesn't really want you

By MWANGI GITHAHU Time of article published Nov 18, 2019

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That life is hard for refugees is fairly obvious. 

Not many people would uproot themselves from their homes, where they are surrounded by familiar people, culture, food and language in exchange for a life with no guarantees and no end date in sight.

According to the UN, "A refugee is someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group".

It is even worse when the country you have sought asylum in doesn’t really want you around and doesn’t seem particularly interested in helping you to go elsewhere.

This is the situation that the 1 000 plus refugees who have been protesting in the Cape Town CBD claim they have found themselves in. 

They say they cannot return home, but the recent attacks on foreigners in South Africa have made them fear for their lives. 

Also, if, as seems the case, their hosts feel they have overstayed their welcome, then perhaps it is better for them to find somewhere they might be wanted.

South Africa - which the UN High Commission for Refugees once said has “liberal” asylum laws - incorporates the basic principles of refugee protection including freedom of movement, the right to work and access to basic social services.

Foreign nationals in Cape Town have been sleeping in Greenmarket Square and in the Central Methodist Church after police fired stun grenades to get them out of the arcade where they were holding a sit-in outside UN offices. Picture: Ayanda Ndamane/African News Agency(ANA)

The country, however, has had well-documented issues with xenophobic attacks on fellow black Africans.

Some hope to benefit from resettlement to third countries, others wish they could be helped to return to countries where asylum had previously been granted, and then there may be a number who might want to return to their home countries if it is safe to do so.

There are countries in Africa, and elsewhere on the globe, where refugees appear to be more welcome. Uganda, which through the 1970s and 1980s manufactured its fair share of refugees, is today recognised by the UNHCR as having one of the most progressive refugee and asylum policies anywhere.

In other words, once refugees are recognised as such in that country, they are provided with land for agricultural use in villages in the countryside and then integrated within the host community. They are given access to the same services as Ugandan citizens, they have the automatic right to work and establish their own businesses, they can go wherever they like. 

At the same time, the Ugandan government accommodates refugees in its domestic planning policies. This approach has been found to enhance social cohesion while at the same time reducing dependency on humanitarian aid, and allows the refugees and their hosts to live together peacefully.

Uganda and Rwanda are some of the few exceptions to the rule when it comes to how refugees are seen and treated on this continent of ours.

Most African nations do not have a good record when it comes to refugees. 

Some like Kenya opt to stash refugees away in refugee camps in the most inhospitable parts of the country and then wash their hands of the issue and make them the UNHCR’s problem.

So what can South Africa do? 

Clearly at present it is not possible to dish out parcels of land to the refugees as a way to integrate them, the country has more than enough unsolved problems around land and this would only add to the burden.

Foreign nationals were squatting outside the UN High Commission for Refugees in Brooklyn, Pretoria. Picture: Bongani Shilubane/African News Agency (ANA)

However, as things stand currently, South Africa should enforce the country's “liberal” asylum policies and take steps to ensure that refugees are integrated.

One step could be to enroll all refugees in language programmes tailored to their needs, this would mean the refugees learning a South African language that might make them and their hosts feel more at home with each other.

Integration is a two-way process, requiring effort from refugees and the governments and societies of receiving countries. Perhaps the government and civil society could provide public education about the realities of refugees or migrants and in communities across the land help both sides, engage in structured contacts teaching intercultural communications skills, myth busting and thus transform attitudes on both sides.

Meanwhile, the African Union likes to sing from the hymn sheet of African solutions to African problems, but it has only paid lip service to the issue of viable solutions to refugee management. Perhaps it is time they actually did something tangible.

* Mwangi Githahu was born and raised in Kenya before relocating to South Africa, where he now lives.

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

Cape Argus

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