SWM 2014: Addressing the vulnerability of South Africa’s migrant communities

South Africa’s relative wealth and economic opportunities have for many years attracted migrants from other countries in the region, such as Zimbabwe, Lesotho and Mozambique, to live and work in the country. However, the outbreak of anti-migrant riots in 2008, beginning in Johannesburg and spreading to other cities across the country, left at least 62 people dead and highlighted the ongoing stigmatization that foreign residents face. Attacks against migrants have continued, though on a smaller scale, including a number of apparently targeted killings of Somalis during 2013. In this context, the organization People Suffering Oppression and Poverty (PASSOP) has set up a range of initiatives, including anti-xenophobia help desks, to address the rights gaps and exclusion that underline the vulnerabilities of South Africa’s migrants. Braam Hanekom, Director of PASSOP, talked to MRG about the organization’s work to support the integration of these communities. What are the main obstacles to integration that migrant communities face in South Africa?

Refugees, asylum seekers and immigrants are exposed to hardships, discrimination and violence. In South Africa they are often treated as second-class citizens, denied access to justice and refused even their most basic rights. This group of undocumented immigrants is acutely underrepresented in labour unions, civil society and community activism efforts, and not represented at all politically. They often live in desperate conditions, making them among the most easily and widely exploited individuals in South Africa, and are often made the victims of targeted hate crimes and xenophobic aggression.

Do you think that hate crime against migrants has reduced since 2008 or is much of it simply not acknowledged?

It is unfortunate that it takes incidents like the 2008 riots or the 2009 attacks to bring attention to the plight of migrant communities in South Africa. Hate crimes aren’t always so overt as these well-publicized incidents; they are often much less sensational or even unreported and, as such, often go unnoticed by much of South Africa. Even those that are reported are sometimes brushed under the rug by those in a position to affect change. It is every person’s right to safety and dignity in this country and it is a shame that these incidents are often ignored. It is difficult to quantify how many isolated incidents take place because many go unreported. This is part of the impetus behind opening the help desks in at-risk communities. We hope these desks will provide a safe space where victims of xenophobia and hate crimes can report these incidents and begin a dialogue to work towards peace.

What do you think is driving this phenomenon?

At PASSOP, we believe that it is a lack of understanding and dialogue that provides a toxic environment where hate crimes and discrimination are more likely to occur. Stereotypes about different nationalities unfairly paint migrants with a broadly negative brush. These stereotypes are further perpetuated by the media and when the only press about a certain group is bad press, whether or not it is rooted in fact, these negative attitudes towards these groups begin to permeate society. In order to combat these stereotypes, we aim to open channels of conversation to spread a better understanding of migrant communities. It is important that migrants are represented accurately and given a chance to prove themselves without being pre-judged based on faulty media representations. The lack of access to health care, education and labour adds to these negative stereotypes. If they [migrants] are provided with access to these basic rights, they will be better situated to change their circumstances and break these negative stereotypes.

What is PASSOP’s approach to improving the situation of migrant communities in the country?

Our goal is to create and strengthen networks of communication, dialogue and interchange to promote peace, understanding and justice in local communities. Our mission is to empower communities to stand up and express their beliefs, needs and fears freely, and access the rights they are entitled to. PASSOP believes that this can be achieved through basic rights education, activism, integration and community participation. We directly assist individuals by offering paralegal advice on documentation issues, the asylum seeker process and labour disputes. We also assist with CV building and job placement. More broadly, we aid the immigrant community by holding integration events and workshops to promote dialogue and understanding between different nationalities and immigrant communities. We also have a number of branches directly embedded within the communities of De Doorns, Masiphumele and Imizamo Yethu. These branches help to promote integration and to monitor the area for xenophobic activities and provide a safe space for victims to report incidents.

What have been the results of your work?

PASSOP continues to provide a voice for migrants who often find themselves unrepresented otherwise. We have made great strides towards increased understanding and dialogue between South African and migrant communities. We will continue to create spaces for these dialogues in the future until hate crimes and discrimination are a thing of the past. We hope to garner more funding so we may expand our projects and increase the number of migrants we are able to interact with each day. 

This article appears in MRG’s annual flagship report State of the World’s Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2014. View the full report.

Photo: Zimbabwean migrants work on the vegetable patch at the children’s shelter in Musina, South Africa. Credit: DFID

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Date: 17/06/2014


South Africa


State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2014
Racism/Discrimination/Hate speech

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