In recent weeks, we have observed a series of indefensible horrors in South Africa from the appalling rape and murder of 19-year-old Uyinene Mrwetyana to gratuitous violence against foreign African nationals. This served as the backdrop of the first United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Africa consultations held at the Nelson Mandela Foundation from 10 - 11 September.
These multi-stakeholder consultations - which included refugees, NGOs, civil society, multi-national institutions and the private sector - were the first of its kind and were borne of the regionalisation and the decentralisation of the UNHCR. The need to move the operational arm of the UNHCR closer to the field in order to be more effective and responsive to the needs of the refugees formed the genesis of these Africa consultations. The consultations provided a valuable forum for dialogue and debate around regional and global issues as well as an opportunity to cultivate new and meaningful partnerships amongst different stakeholders. In line with the approach of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, the convening also sought to prioritise the needs of grassroots organisations which has been seen as the best way to address displacement and ensure refugee integration. While issues discussed were local in nature and spoke to the context specific needs of each, it also covered an array of regional and global themes. More specifically, issues discussed included refugee integration, migration, recurring xenophobic attacks in South Africa, Afro-phobia, refugee psychosocial support, climate change as well as partnership building.
The opening discussions of the day were largely informed by the re-emergence of “afrophobic” attacks against foreign nationals in Gauteng and Kwa-Zulu Natal and the lack of resources dedicated to refugees and migrants by the state. Dr. Mbete a lecturer in the Department of Politics at the University of Pretoria, unravelled the myth of xenophobia as a cover for afrophobia. She further discussed the ineffective and underfunded systems designed by government to address asylum seekers, refugees and migrants. These inefficacies in the system play a role in perpetuating the exclusion of foreign nationals and fuels beliefs of fellow Africans as the other. Mr. Valentin Tapsoba (UNHCR Regional Director) spoke of how refugee documentation in post-Apartheid South Africa has withheld or, in most cases, taken decades to provide valid documentation for foreign nationals to reach integration status. The hard truth lies in the inescapable reality that the political, social, and economic climate of South Africa has no tangible safe spaces for fellow Africans and no tangible means have been set into motion to change that. The lack of infrastructure allocated to accommodating foreign nationals, through refugee camps or settlements has resulted in an influx of refugees and migrants within these deprived South African communities. For the majority of South African nationals in these informal communities, basic services are scarce and criminality remains a means of survival. With rising unemployment rates and fragmented service delivery discontent has grown prevalent. These services required by nationals and foreign nationals fuel competition and violent conflicts translated into waves of afrophobic attacks.
The structure of the consultations followed a ‘’whole-society approach’’ by merging a spectrum of non-traditional social actors in the humanitarian sector, such as the private sector, academia, research institutions centred around development, and individuals in society.
George Okoth-Obbo, the UNHCR assistant high commissioner, reflected on the negative narratives disseminated throughout society of refugees and migrants as criminals or a detriment to the economic betterment of South Africans. The criterion required for prosperous integration of our refugees and migrants speaks directly to the concerns of South Africans. In a state that has proven incapable of responding to the widening inequality gap and the economic and social deprivation of the nationals, the challenge is finding different stakeholders in society to help dissolve this competition through innovative and sustainable solutions. Okoth-Obbo referenced the importance of creating a dynamic in which national stakeholders with access to political power leverage their influence to dissolve the toxic competition. In further consultations with refugees, additional obstacles associated to invalid or no documentation were revealed, pertaining to the development of skill sets, the accessibility of education and ultimately forging economic and social resilience. These concerns request the private sector to engage with refugees and migrants in a more proactive way to help enrich their livelihoods while supporting the host communities to create conditions that allow for effective integration.
Outcomes from the day included partnership initiatives between the poverty alleviation coalition with 12 NGOs, the UNHCR, the World Bank and 35 countries. Recommendations presented by the GCR (Global Compact on Refugees) included national arrangements, solidarity conferences as well as different ways of quickly and predictably financing the sector.
For the UNHCR, refugee advocacy and protections are fundamental. The UNHCR’s aim is to shift the narrative around refugees in host communities from burdens to productive contributors. Recruiting the private sector to the humanitarian sector is seen as one of the most effective approaches to improve refugees’ livelihoods during integration. However, with the collapse of numerous state owned enterprises and the retrenchment of hundreds countrywide, the South African private sector may prove too unstable to take up any more responsibility and commitment. Asylum seekers and migrants deserve the same rights and freedoms afforded to South African citizens and the South African Human Rights commission is mandated to ensure foreign nationals have access to those rights. Our constitution, the values of Ubuntu, and the rainbow narrative the South African state is founded on are incongruent with the public violence refugees suffer at the hands of South Africans. More than ever, affording refugees with valid documentation and prospective integration remain beyond reach.