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Report of the Conference on ‘Refugees Integration in South Africa:

Ensuring Integration, Dignity and Safety for Refugees’

Tuesday 18 June 2009

Summary
The conference was jointly organized by Southern African Media and Gender
Institute (SAMGI), Democratic Governance and Rights Unit (DGRU) and the
United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) as part of the activities
of Refugee Month and highlighted the plight facing the thousands of refugees in
South Africa at present.

Discussions focused on the reasons for refugees seeking sanctuary in South


Africa, their problems not only in obtaining the papers needed to ensure that their
presence in the country was legal but also the problems of social and economic
integration and not least of all, the daily dangers of discrimination, humiliation,
physical assault, torture and even murder.

Much was said about the incapacity or inability of the Department of Home Affairs
to assist refugees, the role its ineptitude played in exacerbating the plight of
refugees and the question of whose responsibility it was to ensure the safety of
refugees and their families while they were in South Africa.

There was considerable discussion about obstacles to the successful integration


of refugees into society, such as xenophobia and discrimination and the role
South Africa’s apartheid history and entrenched racial segregation played in
fostering anti-refugee sentiment and fear among local communities.

Also discussed were the crucial role that the right of access to information could
play in assisting refugees and the relevance of legal instruments such as the
Convention on Refugees and South African law relevant to the rights of refugees.

At one stage the conference was divided into smaller “commissions”, in which
delegates could choose to participate and which then discussed and reported
back on the following related topics:

• Commission 1: The safety and security of refugees;


• Commission 2: The socio-economic integration of refugees;
• Commission 3: Socio-cultural convergences and divergences; and

Southern African Media and Gender Institute


P O Box 15994 Vlaeberg 8018 Cape Town South Africa
4th Floor Dumbarton House, 1 Church Street,
Cape Town, 8001 South Africa
Tel: +27 21 424 0653 / Fax: +27 21 424 0659
www.samgi.org.za
• Commission 4: The position of women and children refugees in ‘camps’.

The conference urged all those participating to take the ideas discussed during
the conference back home with them, to keep the dialogue alive and to take
responsibility for helping to alleviate the plight of refugees.

Participants were urged to spread the message that far from being an enemy,
refugees had a meaningful and useful contribution to make to society and should
be welcomed in such a spirit.

Attendance

Approximately 70 people attended the conference. This includes members of civil


society, international organizations, academics, media and interested individuals.
Government officials have been invited but no one attended.

Overview of programme and Panelists presentations

After the Welcoming, overview of Programme and introductory word, different


panelists have delivered their presentations. Ms Tracey Saunders (Community
Activist) presented on the ‘situation of refugees in camps’; Mr. Mukelani Dimba
(ODAC) on ‘The right of access to information’; George Pambason (AFRISA) on
‘Institutional failure to promote social cohesion in society’ and; Dr. Lawrence
Mgbanson (UNHCR) on ‘Rights of freedom of movement and freedom of
residence’.

Break Away Sessions

The conference participants were divided into four (4) “commissions” and then
discussed and reported back on the following related topics:

Commission 1: Safety and Security for Refugees

This group summarised their discussions as follows:

Safety and security is patently lacking and there is a pervasive feeling of fear
among refugees. This lack of safety and fear affects not only refugees but all
South Africans. Therefore the causes and the effects of this state of affairs are
very complex.

• There is a lack of integration of refugees at schools;

Southern African Media and Gender Institute


P O Box 15994 Vlaeberg 8018 Cape Town South Africa
4th Floor Dumbarton House, 1 Church Street,
Cape Town, 8001 South Africa
Tel: +27 21 424 0653 / Fax: +27 21 424 0659
www.samgi.org.za
• A sense of identity is crucial to ensure the safety of refugees;
• The safety of refugees is not the sole responsibility of the Department of
Home Affairs but should be borne by other state departments as well;
• NGOs play a crucial role in assisting refugees;
• For refugees, financial security is equivalent to physical safety;
• Job security is another serious concern;
• The Department of Home Affairs is exacerbating the plight of refugees
instead of alleviating it: Unless one is disabled, an unaccompanied minor
or drastically ill, it is often impossible to get into its offices;
• The Department of Home Affairs is failing to provide the services refugees
need and perhaps the time has arrived for the UNHCR to intervene;
• At the department’s Nyanga office, refugees stay overnight, waiting to be
attended to and are very vulnerable to physical assault;
• The case of a refugee who died of starvation while waiting in a queue last
year was recalled;
• Refugees need to ask what they themselves can do to alleviate their
plight;
• Those who most need to attend these types of conferences – such as
xenophobic criminals – never do attend;
• The lack of resources to assist refugees is a national problem.

Commission 2: How to Ensure the Socio-Economic Integration of Refugees

This group summarised its discussions as follows:

• The lack of information is a central problem: Both refugees and those


meant to be assisting them lack information on the rights of refugees;
• The government seems to be refusing to deal with barriers to integration.
• South Africans have intense feelings about their entitlement to jobs but at
the same time there is a serious shortage of skills nationally;
• New legislation as well as protocols are badly needed to enable refugees
to work legally;
• Refugees need to be given sufficient information to assist them as soon as
they arrive in the country – such as information on hospitals, schools,
police stations and other vital sources of help;
• Even legislation is not enough – state officials such as magistrates and
police officers need to be informed about the rights of refugees and how
they should be treated;
• There is a great need for a website on which qualified refugees can
advertise their services and skills;

Southern African Media and Gender Institute


P O Box 15994 Vlaeberg 8018 Cape Town South Africa
4th Floor Dumbarton House, 1 Church Street,
Cape Town, 8001 South Africa
Tel: +27 21 424 0653 / Fax: +27 21 424 0659
www.samgi.org.za
• South African law needs to conform to international instruments designed
to ensure that practice guarantees refugees their rights such as the right
to live, work and study in the country;
• The questions of how difficult it is for refugees to apply their qualifications
and skills in terms of SAQA was discussed;
• There is a pervasive and serious shortage of information about refugees
and their rights;
• If the Department is correct in its assertion that it lacks capacity to assist
refugees, it must take steps to increase this capacity or share its
responsibilities;
• Lists of refugees and the skills they offer are helpful but have the
unfortunate side-effect of also making them vulnerable to identification and
attack.

Commission 3: Socio-Cultural Intersections and Divergences

This group summarised its discussions as follows:

• The relationship between assimilation and intolerance was discussed.


• The view was expressed that the moment a person has to give up part of
his or her culture, this profoundly affects his sense of identity;
• There is a need to overcome racial, ethnic and cultural divisions which are
well entrenched in South African society. For example, certain sports such
as soccer, are dominated by black people while others like rugby are
dominated by white people;
• Cultural differences are used by xenophobic groups as an excuse and
justification for their racist behaviour;
• Ignorance among different groups and cultures is enemy number one;
• There are significant ‘intersections’ among disparate groups such as
shared moral and religious values, all of which can play an important role
in combating xenophobia;
• The media are a useful tool in countering xenophobia – but at present they
tend to portray refugees in a negative light and encourage local people to
see refugees as an enemy;
• Perhaps the word “refugee” itself should be replaced with a more neutral
term in an effort to change the public perception;
• Although we call ourselves “the Rainbow Nation”, our mentality is still very
tribalistic and we remain racially divided;
• The question of why African rather than other western refugees have been
the victims of xenophobia was discussed;

Southern African Media and Gender Institute


P O Box 15994 Vlaeberg 8018 Cape Town South Africa
4th Floor Dumbarton House, 1 Church Street,
Cape Town, 8001 South Africa
Tel: +27 21 424 0653 / Fax: +27 21 424 0659
www.samgi.org.za
•The lack of good leadership in many African countries such as Zimbabwe
exacerbates the plight of refugees in South Africa;
Commission 4: Women and Children in Refugee Camps
The discussions of this commission were summarised as follows:
• The lack of access to information on reproductive health and HIV/AIDS is
a serious problem affecting female refugees;
• The lack of focus on the above might be the understandable
preoccupation with other pressing and life-threatening problems such as
hunger and starvation;
• Access to women and children in refugee camps is a serious problem too
and often reflects official policy: The Blue Waters camp in Cape Town is an
example of a camp where outsiders have been denied access;
• Women and children in refugee camps need to tell their own stories until
they have a voice to represent them;
• Greater use should be made of the media, to raise awareness of the
problems facing women and children refugees;
• The children of refugees in camps often do not attend school;
• Greater use should be made of women’s forums and posters in clinics;
• The dominant patriarchal culture of many African societies exacerbates
the plight of women and children refugees.

Way forward

Broadly speaking, these are points that participants highlighted as a way forward
to an effective integration of refugees in South Africa:

- Encourage government and politicians to participate in dialogue with civil


society and refugees’ organizations on issues regarding refugees ;
- Refugees have responsibility to be opened to local community by learning
languages and local culture;
- Empowerment of local community on refugee rights through education;
- Involvement of refugees to deal with refugees in camps;
- The media should uphold their responsibility to undertake balanced
reporting on issues related to refugees. They must stop wrongly portraying
refugees;
- Representation of refugees in media: refugees need to be represented
into local and national radio-television broadcasting;
- Establishment of a toll free number for helping refugees in danger and;

Southern African Media and Gender Institute


P O Box 15994 Vlaeberg 8018 Cape Town South Africa
4th Floor Dumbarton House, 1 Church Street,
Cape Town, 8001 South Africa
Tel: +27 21 424 0653 / Fax: +27 21 424 0659
www.samgi.org.za
- Setting up website and blogs through which refugees can learn their rights
and get access to information.

Southern African Media and Gender Institute


P O Box 15994 Vlaeberg 8018 Cape Town South Africa
4th Floor Dumbarton House, 1 Church Street,
Cape Town, 8001 South Africa
Tel: +27 21 424 0653 / Fax: +27 21 424 0659
www.samgi.org.za