As I sat in Geneva and listened to fellow faith-based actors share best practices and discuss durable solutions in assisting refugees around the world, back home the historic Yeoville Market was torched by a xenophobic vigilante mob. The market, often referred to as a “symbol of Pan-African cosmopolitanism”, has been reduced to smouldering ashes with many shop owners losing their sole source of income.
One hundred million. This is the number of people who have been forced to flee their homes and seek safety from war, famine, violence and persecution. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees, present at the two-day conference “Welcoming the Stranger, Shaping the Future” that marked World Refugee Day on 20 June, states that the number of displaced people worldwide has increased every year over the past decade and now stands at the highest level in recorded history. No modern refugee crisis has been fully solved but is merely eclipsed by the next humanitarian disaster.
Yet there is hope. There are brave people doing important and inspiring work in the face of enormous resistance and threats to their own lives and safety.
Last week I had the privilege of meeting some of these individuals when The Lutheran World Federation in partnership with Islamic Relief Worldwide and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society – the Jewish humanitarian organisation dealing with refugees and asylum seekers – brought more than 50 faith leaders and activists from 37 countries around the world together to share their challenges and experiences in an increasingly difficult global context.
The discussions aimed to strengthen partnerships between grassroots faith-based organisations, who are often the first responders to humanitarian crises at a local and national level, and the international humanitarian system. It also highlighted the role of faith-based actors in contributing to a coordinated and efficient international refugee response as they remain on the ground and work with affected communities long after international humanitarian organisations have left.
Indeed, the concept of “welcoming the stranger” is a core pillar of many of the world’s major religious traditions and a moral imperative that motivates local faith actors around the globe to respond to the needs of vulnerable and marginalised refugee communities.
While religion has historically been a source of great conflict and crises, these groups are working to ensure that it also be part of the solution in bringing communities together and giving dignity to those suffering. The role of faith in healing trauma and integrating refugees is vital, and religion can be used positively to create a peaceful coexistence and spaces of encounter for groups to learn about each other.
A key focus of the “welcoming the stranger” conference was placing the humanity of refugees at the centre of all interventions, recognising that each displaced person carries with them their own unique history and traditions, and that each number in a refugee camp is an individual with their own hopes and dreams and story.
Humanity is often missing in the South African response to refugees. Emerging from a long and dark history of subjugation and racial discrimination, our country’s democratic rebirth has been scarred by a vociferous hate towards those crossing our borders seeking a better life. Refugees, asylum seekers and migrants have been subjected to ever-increasing waves of xenophobia, Afrophobic at its heart, simmering under the surface of daily life and spilling out into the violent riots of 2008 and 2015, now threatening to drown the country once more.
The deep-seated socioeconomic and structural inequalities in our nation are a source of great pain and suffering for South Africans. Sadly, these inequities are exploited by certain community leaders and political parties who use hateful rhetoric to turn local communities against refugees and asylum seekers for their own gain.
The arrival of Operation Dudula, a coordinated campaign targeting migrants and foreign nationals and utilising the power of social media to mobilise vigilante action against them, is the latest worrying manifestation. Dudula, meaning “push back” in Zulu, blames migrant workers for rampant crime and contributing to our high unemployment rate by taking jobs away from South Africans.
Once the relief efforts in the wake of the 2008 xenophobic riots subsided, civil society united to find ways to address the underlying causes of, and find long-term solutions to, the violence. Initiatives like the Hate Crimes Working Group were born, a multisectoral network of non-governmental organisations advocating hate crimes awareness and legislation in the country, and I had the privilege to represent the South African Jewish Board of Deputies on the body.
Many successes have come from these and other efforts, including the push to pass a hate crimes bill in the country, and organisations from different sectors are collaborating effectively on these issues. However, much work remains to be done in addressing South Africa’s pandemic of hate, which sees increasing acts of aggression against not only refugees, asylum seekers and migrants but other groups such as the LGBTQIAP+ community.
Addressing rising levels of chronic, crushing poverty and access to basic services is a key step in building a just South Africa for all. Entrenched attitudes of bigotry must also be tackled as xenophobia, and all forms of hate and discrimination from homophobia to antisemitism and Islamophobia to racism, damage the very fabric of our society, perpetuating suspicion and fostering fear.
If nation-building fractures, then hate demeans us all. We must learn the lessons of our past, and in particular the role a language of othering, scapegoating and demonisation has played in paving the way from words of hate to actions of violence and even genocide. This is no longer about what could happen if hate goes unchecked but what is already happening.
We need to heed the warning signs of the growing rage building against foreign nationals, fanned by those in power and the silence of the authorities. If we fail to take a stand against xenophobia, South Africa’s fragile social cohesion will become a tinderbox which the smallest spark could set ablaze. DM