Maverick Citizen

Maverick Citizen: Xenophobia

‘These are essentially human beings, people like us’

Chaos enveloped St George’s Mall in Cape Town after Public Order Police were called in to evict around 300 refugees and asylum seekers who had camped outside the United National Human Rights Council building in Cape Town on 30 October 2019. Photo: Aisha Abdool Karim

Distressing images of law enforcement officials evicting refugees and asylum seekers camped outside the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees building in Cape Town on Wednesday morning has been beamed around the world. Babies were ripped from mothers’ arms and at least 100 people were arrested. In this piece, Gift of the Givers’ Dr Imtiaz Sooliman calls for a response that is humane, compassionate and practical.  

The current impasse between foreign nationals and the United Nations necessitates a compassionate, humane and practical solution involving the UN, various organs of the South African government and the governments of origin of the foreign nationals.

The foreign nationals don’t want to stay in South Africa. That is an established fact. They have been targeted, live in fear, their documents are not accepted and they are rapidly becoming unemployable for a myriad reasons, in an economically depressed and socially challenged South Africa.

The complication in this whole matter arises from the request of the foreign nationals to be granted asylum in a third country and not be repatriated to their country of origin (this is understandable given the terrible history of conflict in Africa). But is there any “third” country that is willing to accept these stranded men, women and children? If yes, then they need to be moved as soon as all related processes are completed. If no country wants to accept them, it has to be a choice of repatriation to their country of origin or remain in South Africa.

The hard decision they have to make is, is it better to return to the countries they departed from or remain in South Africa, where the hope of a better life for asylum seekers, economic migrants and the like has all but evaporated? Contemplating such a life directing decision needs deep introspection and a stable, secure environment. No matter what likes or dislikes South Africans may have around foreign nationals for whatever reason, these are essentially human beings, people like us, women, children and the elderly, all are not criminal, all are not whatever negative concept we want to conjecture in our prejudiced minds driven by stereotypes of some or other experience.

Babies and children are involved here, women who are vulnerable, even men who may have “run” because of monstrosities in their country of origin. All they want is an opportunity to live peacefully, in dignity and to provide their families with stability and security. Yes, it is clear that elements of vice, drug peddling, human trafficking and extortion arise from within their ranks, but that is no justification to tarnish entire communities with the same brush of xenophobic hatefulness.

We are fortunate that we were not born in their countries for we could have been in their situation now. Yes, we had our own challenges and it wasn’t pretty, but we survived and we overcame. Our Ubuntu spirit can surely allow us to embrace, or at least not harm, a fellow human and that too of African origin.

The United Nations, working in tandem with the South African and relevant African governments, should set up a camp of safety and dignity with all amenities (if the foreigners don’t want to return to the areas where they were living until a few weeks ago) while plans are made of repatriation, in all likelihood, to their own countries.

Gift of the Givers salutes the Methodist Church and its religious leaders for the generosity of spirit in embracing a “broken” people. The SAPS have a tough job to do, the challenges are many; they live lives fraught with danger but they need to exercise calmness, a cool temperament and a measured response, especially when dealing with women and children.

There has been an outpouring of condemnation from South Africans on the numerous high-profile gender-based crimes in recent weeks. Women need to be treated with respect, irrespective of the circumstances; are they any less of a woman, being a foreign national?

Gift of the Givers has intervened with blankets for the refugees; greater support will follow with meals, nappies, sanitary pads, bottled water and, above all, compassion and reassurance. MC