It is easy to have a sense of pessimism around the fate of refugees and asylum seekers in South Africa, when we witness scenes of looting and xenophobic violence as has been occurring in the past few days of political unrest in parts of Tshwane. With many South Africans forced to deal with severe deprivation as a result of high levels of unemployment and poverty, narratives surrounding refugees and asylum seekers are reduced to their being economic competitors in a space that offers limited resources.
Given that the factors that create refugee flows in the beginning – war, political oppression, and conflict – are most often beyond South Africa’s control, it seems at times there is simply no way forward. However, on World Refugee Day this year, and notwithstanding serious questions remaining, a new optimism was injected into the discourse.
This past Monday, 20 June 2016, at an event hosted by the Department of Home Affairs, Minister of Home Affairs Malusi Gigaba put forward his vision for refugee protection for South Africa.
For many in the audience, which comprised members of civil society, government and United Nations as well as representatives of refugee groups, there were two contextual elements that framed his comments. The first was an amendment to the Refugee Act, currently at the oral hearing stage of the parliamentary process, which seeks sharply to constrain work rights for asylum seekers at the same time ensuring proof of identity and residence to those renewing their permits. At the same time there is an as-yet-unseen Green paper that is due for release before the end of June laying out several new directions including, reputedly, the creation of an indefinite refugee status for refugees in South Africa, thus closing the option of permanent residence or citizenship, and the creation of some kind of SADC identity document to facilitate movement between countries and – in policy – separate economic migrants from the more immediate humanitarian concerns of refugees.
The second contextual element was the testimonies, given immediately prior to the Minister’s speech, the first two of which, particularly, evidenced many of the qualities and positive contribution of refugees to which the Minister subsequently referred. It was a most dignified segue to the Minister’s own presentation.
The Minister’s vision, both in content and tone, provided a clear and welcome departure from a number of recent government pronouncements, and pointed toward a clear ideological and strategic framework from which policy can presumably be developed.
His point of departure was South Africa’s positive record in the protection of refugees and asylum seekers. Rightly, he spoke of South Africa as having one of the world’s most advanced refugee legislations, marked by the immediate inclusion of asylum seekers into the community, not to be separated by encampment. He talked in terms of the overwhelmingly favourable disposition of South Africans towards refugees. It was a refreshingly positive take on the polity and one that is much needed in the current political climate.
This tone continued in comments describing the “resilience and enterprise” that refugees bring to a country, and the need for South Africans to pay better attention to their positive contribution and to learn from it. At the same time he expressed his abhorrence of xenophobia and the temptation to blame refugees for pre – existing problems citing the needs for better social integration and public education in the host community.
He talked of the management of the asylum process and its need for improvement. These remarks began with honest acknowledgement of some of the issues – the openness of the current system to abuse which saps much needed resources following up on spurious claims and compliance issues, the need for fair treatment and timeous processing of genuine claims, and the twin scourges of xenophobia and corruption. And he referred to the need for political leadership, backed by policy – but also implementation – change.
He lastly referred to the need for integration of refugees into the community “in order to unleash their full potential.”
Implicit in the comments is the desire for a realistic separation of the different policy responses needed for migrants and refugees, in particular migrants from impoverished countries looking for better opportunities but who appear “refugee-like” in their social and economic profile but whose need is of a different order. It is an important distinction to make, one the world is struggling to grapple with at this very moment, let alone the average South African faced with the reality of tough economic competition. However it is important to understand that refugees and asylum seekers are not here as a matter of choice, but have escaped the countries of their birth and find themselves in countries like South Africa in search of protection from conflict, war and persecution. Migrants, however, are regarded as people who make a choice to move, albeit a difficult choice, especially within the context of many of these migrants leaving behind poverty in the hope of seeking greater economic opportunity. This is a formidable challenge both at a policy and operational level and demands a new found sophistication from government and department alike.
This overall honesty of the situation, as well as due acknowledgement of refugees’ contribution, potentially sets the standard by which current and future performance of the department, current legislative amendments and future proposals should be judged.
However, certain proposed legislative changes raise critical questions as they seem to be in contradiction with this positive vision. This raises critical questions:
How does the curbing of work rights for asylum seekers balance the need for their positive contribution to be realised? We know that the first year of a refugee’s life in a new community is critical in setting a forward orientation – whether the person will move toward the pole of social integration or sink into social and economic isolation resulting in deep and irreversible poverty.
A similar question can be raised about the proposal apparently contained within the green paper to create the status of indefinite refugee? How is this to be understood as promoting integration and leveraging the positive economic and social benefits to which the Minister refers? This seems to imply the creation of a permanent class of “other”.
And is there, within the inevitable budgetary constraints, the political and departmental will to cement the acknowledged gains in the fight against corruption within the department at the same time as raising the skills level to deal with the complexity of cases, providing the backing policies that recognise and deal with cases that present genuine protection needs and obligations but which do not fall neatly within existing refugee definitions?
Lastly there needs to be some definition of the government’s disposition to issues such as the practice of “first safe country of asylum” in its status adjudications, recognising that many of the countries immediately to our north may not have the resources to enact comprehensive and consistent policy towards the protection of refugees.
The Minister talked of addressing the causes of refugee flight – this notion can be extended to not burdening some countries beyond their capacities.
That said, the Minister’s presentation went a long way to reframing helpfully the current conversation around policy in this vital area. The metaphorical devil remains in the political imperatives, policy detail and implementation practice. DM