South Africa

South Africa

Op-Ed: World Social Forum on Migration – a monumental foul-up

Op-Ed: World Social Forum on Migration – a monumental foul-up

On the day the World Social Forum on Migration (WSFM) ended The Times reported South African authorities had released, for comment, a document that would require asylum seekers to reveal personal details such as bank balances and academic qualifications. Many of the questions are irrelevant for asylum seekers and merely place another obstacle in an already complicated and frustrating process. Ironically, the Forum itself was also a disappointment. It was the first time it had been hosted on the African continent and now it seems as if justice for migrants will continue being an uphill battle because even the WSFM let them down – monumentally. By RUSSELL POLLITT.

Since 1960 there has been a threefold increase in migrants worldwide – some 232 million people. About 51 million migrants are found in Africa alone, almost the population of one country on the continent: South Africa.

The movement of peoples all over the globe is shaping the world, and South Africa is no exception. South Africa, historically, is a land of migrants – white, black and Indian people moved in waves into the country, or around the country, for various reasons. Many South Africans have left the country to build lives in places they believe will afford them a better life – most notably in places like Australia, Britain and Canada. In some of these countries you even find special South African shops that carry produce only available in the local market.

Migration is not something new and will continue to be a feature of South African life. Yet, despite this, many migrants are still met with a hostile reception in here and in other parts of the world. Migrants are violated, victimised and stigmatised. Migration policies are restrictive and many governments do not always uphold international agreements or policies. In many countries local police target migrants and South Africa is no different. There seems to be an obsession, which echoes the old apartheid pass law policy, when it comes to policing migrants. There is a tendency to sensationalise figures when suggesting how many foreigners could be in South Africa. Census 2011 suggested that 3.3% of the population was made up of foreigners; this is only about 1.7 million people. Granted, many may have avoided the census out of fear. But a statistical analysis conducted by the African Centre for Migration and Society (ACMS) concluded that about two million people were foreigners – not that much higher than the census. Even doubled, there are potentially only around four million foreigners in South Africa, which has a population of about 52 million people.

Let’s take another example; last year 12,000 people sought asylum in South Africa – only two were granted asylum status. Now the government is proposing a tightening its policy on asylum seekers. Sometimes one even wonders if those who write such policy understand what they are writing about. ‘Asylum seekers’ refers to groups who normally flee for fear of persecution or because of unstable conditions. Many of these people do not have time to visit their local bank manager (assuming they have one) to ask for their account balance. The same could be said for their academic qualifications. Concerns about the number of people seeking asylum under false pretences is used as a reason for tightening policy. Sometimes legislators need to learn that it is not the policy that needs to be fiddled but the implementation and system – no policy works unless it is implemented!

But policy is not the only implementation problem that migrants have, because even the WSFM itself, which is a body that is meant to advocate for and protect the rights of migrants, was poorly implemented.

With just days to go, the Local Organising Committee (LOC) of the WSFM announced the venue for the Forum had changed from the Soweto Campus of the University of Johannesburg to Constitution Hill. There was much speculation about whether or not the Forum would even go ahead (bear in mind that this was an international meeting with delegates who had booked tickets from all over the world.) The City of Johannesburg withdrew sponsorship after there was a clear failure of planning between the LOC and the City.

While the City is not a social movement, it is strange that this perceived ‘partnership’ collapsed days before the event. There appear to have been deep disagreements between the City and social movements for some time. The City, apparently, also claimed that French-speaking migrants were driving the WSFM, leading them to believe alternative agendas were at work. What the authorities did not consider was that the chaos of their decision left a bad impression of the City of Johannesburg and South Africa in the minds of many international delegates.

Registration was meant to take place the day before the meeting began – there was no registration at the planned venue and, worst of all, members of the registration team seemed to have little or no idea of what the procedure was. When delegates arrived at the start of the Forum the next day, they discovered it was to take place in a tent in the car park at Constitution Hill. The start was delayed for hours because people had to be registered – which was not done at Constitution Hill but about two kilometres away at Wits Junction in Parktown. The opening, set for 9am, was delayed until after 10am. Keynote speaker, Zwelinzima Vavi, sat waiting to deliver his address until after 1pm. Originally some 4,000 people were expected to attend; on the opening day there were only about 600 people in the tent. And so it continued, day after day, disorganised chaos – a rather embarrassing situation given the international character of the gathering.

There are a number of reasons for the chaos. Having the WSFM in South Africa was always going to be ambitious and challenging. Many refugees/migrants in South African find themselves living in extreme conditions and this is replicated in many of the organisations that work with them: resources are scarce and the environment is hostile. The LOC was always going to struggle to establish a broad coalition of support. The reported withdrawal of the City of Johannesburg’s funding (it seems as if no formal contract was entered into between the City and the LOC even though it was advertised that the City was a major player), guaranteed that the event’s organisation would appear ad hoc at best.

The LOC also has to take some responsibility. The planning was bad and getting information out of them during the days before the event was almost impossible. Many organisations involved in working with migrants pulled out of the LOC because of this. The LOC did not have the capacity and skills, it seems, to deal with the differing opinions of diverse groups and stakeholders including social movements/organisations, NGOs and religious groups that work with migrants. Migration is a hotly contested international debate and there are strongly conflicting views. The LOC had no mechanisms in place to accommodate differing views and ensure horizontal decision-making. There was little planning to use available resources well and handle logistics effectively. To add to the problems, loadshedding also become a factor that made it difficult for delegates to hear some of the panel presentations and discussions.

Some participants at the WSFM felt that a strong delegation from movements for Palestine dominated the agenda. A few delegates suggested the Palestinian caucus usurped the plight of migrants in many other parts of the world – like Syria, where many lives have been lost, and in Africa. The WSFM is meant to provide a platform for democratic debate on issues around migration; some felt that this time it was hijacked by political causes. A number of seminars were organised by different organisations; some helpful discussions around migration took place, but in many instances even these were poorly organised and a few did not happen at all.

At the end of the Forum there were a few, weak, resolutions. These included forming a strong voice for migrants by bringing about greater solidarity between them and the organisations working with them in South Africa, and on the continent, so that their plight is better addressed. The Forum also called on South Africa, African countries and other countries where there is “fragility” to look at the way issues around migration are addressed. These include migration policies, the way migrants are received, and the way in which the legal frameworks around migration are developed. There was a call for studies to be done so that the causes of migration can be better understood and not simply dealt with reactively. Migration, the Forum suggested, should not be seen as a problem, but rather as a global movement that could enrich everyone. There were few helpful concrete suggestions as to how these resolutions might be implemented.

One positive was that despite the chaos there was certainly a desire within refugee/migrant groups and those who advocate for them to garner and develop capacity in a difficult environment. Their passion and commitment to the cause alone is commendable.

The WSFM is an international body. There was, it seems, no intervention from the international body when things were clearly going pear-shaped in South Africa both before and during the event. It would be good if, before the next WSFM planned for 2016, the international organisers think seriously about its future and the way they collaborate with LOCs.

All in all it was disappointing, uninspiring and lacked leadership. If the plight of migrants rests on the WSFM alone then justice is far from imminent. Eskom, SAA, SABC, the Post Office and this Forum on migration in South Africa have all got one thing in common: they are collectively a foul-up. DM

Photo: Young refugees try to keep warm on the side of a major road in Johannesburg, South Africa, 28 July 2008. EPA/KIM LUDBROOK EPA


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