Press Statement: Global South Against Xenophobia (GSAX) of the COVID-19 People’s Coalition
For Immediate Release
13 November 2020
Global South Against Xenophobia (GSAX) of the COVID-19 People’s Coalition strongly condemns the Department of Home Affairs’ decision to deport 20 asylum seekers and refugees to the countries in Africa they have fled. The 20 are from a group that has been protesting against the xenophobia they have been experiencing in South Africa. Of concern also is the call, accompanying the announcement of deportation by Home Affairs for locals to report non-locals without valid permits in the country.
Returning to the issue of the 20 facing deportation. Numbering in the hundreds, the protesting non-locals have been camped at Paint City in Bellville in the Western Cape, following occupation and eviction from the Methodist Church in December 2019. Their protest emerged from the violence targeting non-locals in September 2019, with the group refusing reintegration in local communities but insisting on resettlement via the United Nations High Command for Refugees (UNHCR) to a third country. Their demand highlights the serious xenophobia non-locals from Africa and Asia face here.
Seeking safety in South Africa from persecution, civil wars and discrimination, or economic opportunities, non-locals experience instead exclusion, discrimination and conflicts in their living, work and public spaces, including state institutions. Even before the terrible xenophobic violence of 2008, non-locals suffered, and subsequently in flare ups in 2017 and 2019.
While there is competition for access to basic needs and services in the poor and working class communities in which asylum seekers, refugees, migrant workers and small business entrepreneurs live, the state has yet to roll out a proper integration process. Instead it continues to blame “criminal elements”, and responds mainly in crisis mode when violent flare-ups involving locals occur. Services by state institutions and inclusive policies regarding non-locals—for example, by Home Affairs—fall drastically short of the needs of non-locals to live here with any sense of security. The police also offer them little protection.
Determined in their goal for safety, the protestors’ refusal for reintegration must be seen fundamentally as a stand against their systemic exclusion, which makes living here safely for non-locals almost impossible. It is reported that the protest leaders steadfastly refused to accept the reasons offered by the UNHCR and government that international norms prevent their resettlement in a third country.
The drastic result is the 5 November court ruling for their deportation, reportedly for failing to meet requirements for asylum seekers’ permits, government forcing on them reintegration or deportation as the only available options. The court’s verdict to deport them is a failure of the law, government and international bodies to truthfully acknowledge and deal with the problem of xenophobia in South Africa via humane and functional policies that protect the rights and lives of non-locals. It illustrates a lack of compassion and understanding of the stress and anxiety non-locals experience via xenophobic violence.
From a civil society point of view, it would appear the traumas the 20 have repeatedly experienced were not properly considered. This includes their initial terror of the September 2019 violence in many parts of the country and during their protest in response to this. The latter includes police action against them, violent eviction from the church they had occupied, pressure to leave from businesses and building owners in the Cape Town CBD vicinity, and their subsequent encampment on the streets in poor and squalid conditions for months while they refused to budge. All these experiences have undoubtedly also been traumatising. Yet, what seems not to be on the table is the offer for their reintegration with real political will to support proper integration of non-locals. This dereliction of responsibility has allowed the core issue of their safety to be reframed by the state so as to detract from its overwhelming significance in the matter.
The standoff with the protestors is indeed a complex issue. The protest leaders had reportedly refused any support from legal NGOs and human rights lawyers, who had cautioned them that failure to negotiate with the state, international bodies and civil society organizations would alienate their cause and further jeopardize them when decreased lockdown levels and easing of restrictions enabled Home Affairs to check them for valid papers.
Yet, why must we still question and challenge the decision by Home Affairs and the courts for their deportation?
To begin with, we should note that any offer to the protestors for reintegration that is not accompanied by government’s decisive denouncement of the violence and exclusion targeting non-locals as xenophobic and/or xenophobic-related must appear banal to the protestors. It merely evades their request for safety and protection, including of their families. Redress steps must therefore necessarily show clear political acknowledgement of the problem of xenophobia and will to reverse this. Such effort will also set the tone for accompanying social and economic efforts by South African society and its institutions, including the state’s, towards non-locals. This should be clearly indicated in national policy, to indicate serious intent to address the safety concerns of the protesting non-locals.
Next we note that it is troubling that a court of law should have so narrowly defined the scope of this case in making rulings against the 20, in essence dismissing the point of their protest against xenophobia and their insistence that they can no longer bear it by demanding resettlement in another country they deem safer. Whatever charges might be applicable to certain protestors for their manner of protest and conduct, their deportation must be questioned for the unsafety it still forces on them.
Under the circumstances described, the verdict for deportation is inhumane, based on partiality, and more suited to authoritarianism than democratic principles and fails in upholding institutional and international legal instructions to which South Africa has pledged formal allegiance.
The decision fails to uphold South Africa’s domestic and international obligations towards asylum seekers and opens them up to the risk of refoulement. The principle of non-refoulement, found in the United Nations Convention Against Torture, prohibits states from expelling or extraditing a person to a state where there are substantial grounds for believing they would be in danger of being subjected to torture and death. South Africa as a member state of the convention should adhere to this principle and provide them protection—has the court sufficiently considered this?
South Africa as a signatory to the 1951 AU Refugee Convention, the 1967 protocol on the Rights of Refugees and the 1969 Organisation of African Unity Convention regarding Specific Aspects of Refugees is in fact constrained from making arbitrary decisions to deport asylum seekers and is required instead to be guided by reason, humanity and justice. We consider Home Affairs’ decision, sought via the courts, also contradictory to the state’s Constitutional obligation for all peoples’ democratic right to safety, especially noting Act 130 of the Refugee Act of 1998 enshrined in the South African Constitution. Neither reintegration nor repatriation offer the 20 options for the safety they are seeking. Both options come across as punitive rather than humane.
There is no justification, moreover, for targeting the 20 vulnerable refugees at a time when they need help most during the global COVID-19 pandemic.
South Africa is widely considered as having the most progressive Constitution in the world and must not taint this image by taking hasty, punitive and emotional decisions which disregard human rights and dignity. Deportation is not the answer, instead constructive action to resolve the impasse with the protestors is needed as well as commitment and staying power to end xenophobia via properly undertaking integration. Whichever way one looks at it, sending away the 20 will not resolve but further entrench these challenges.
- We urge the Department of Home Affairs to immediately undertake creating a comprehensive policy framework that ensures that the appeals of thousands of outstanding asylum seekers are dealt with constructively and not in an authoritarian manner.
- We condemn outright Home Affairs’ recent call to South African citizens to report non-locals without documents. This will increase xenophobia, especially in vulnerable poor and working class spaces, and perhaps by employers exploiting them too. Such a provocation also opens up non-local women, children and those in the LGBTQI community to increased vulnerability and exploitation. Home Affairs’ crackdown must be revoked as its tone is fascist, giving permission for neighbours to spy on each other, and will undoubtedly increase levels of interpersonal, group-specific, gender-based and xenophobic violence.
- We support the timeous arrest and prosecution of all perpetrators of xenophobic violence as a key step of government’s commitment to those seeking refuge here; there is no disputing that those who criminally break the law must be held accountable.
- We request the immediate release of the 20 activists currently being held at Lindela in Pretoria for deportation. We ask Home Affairs to renew its offer of reintegration, including to all other Paint City protestors, to reopen negotiations with them, and to emphasize working closely with them and others to end xenophobia by introducing proper integration.
- The court rulings and actions of Home Affairs should be acknowledged as being contrary to the norms of peace and justice, and seen as a threat fuelling hatred, deepening existing divisions between locals and non-locals, and deferring the goal of integration. One suggestion for Home Affairs to move towards proper integration is to perhaps focus on its administrative failings and discriminatory practices. The issue of refugees in a cycle of renewing permits every 1–6 months—for example, in Musina, Pretoria, and Durban—must also be addressed and changed. The processing of asylum seekers’ applications, according to Home Affairs policy, should take 180 days or 6 months. However, people are stuck in the system for up to 19 years! This administrative xenophobia condemns asylum seekers to an overwhelming life of temporariness and stress. Though their permits allow them to study and work here, the 1–6 months duration makes it hard for them to find work as employers are not assured they will succeed in their search for refugee status.
- We urge civil society to step forward to support the 20, including calling for proper political commitment towards integration and protection of all non-locals; we thus demand government find strategies to mitigate social, economic and political forces that act to marginalize refugees, asylum seekers and immigrants.
- We ask UNHCR to urgently take responsibility to pronounce realistically on the possible danger the 20 face if their repatriation is carried out.
- We ask all people in South Africa to support proper integration of non- locals, recognizing the well-being of all is at stake as xenophobic and xenophobic-related conflicts also cause locals injury, loss of lives and possessions. In particular, we ask for them to remain vigilant in highlighting the responsibilities of public officials to not ferment hate for political expediency, and to hold them accountable at all times to promote the rights and dignity of all who live in our country.
- Finally, we ask government and the UNHCR to unambiguously take responsibility to protect all people at this time of COVID-19 by not increasing the vulnerability of any person, group or society in general. They must recognize that while posing particular socio-economic and health challenges, the current moment also provides opportunities to revitalize and build society towards real freedom for all; thus restraint on their part to repatriate asylum seekers must be seriously adopted as a principle.
Our hope for prosperity as a country lies in unity and friendship, and a future that acknowledges the non-locals in our midst as bringing us into full solidarity with the rest of the peoples of Africa and the global South with whom we strive to overcome the indignities of colonialism and capitalism. The first step is staying the deportation of the 20 and promoting the rights and dignity of all non-locals by leaving no stone unturned to provide for their safety and successful integration in society.
Requests for further information to be directed to GSAX members:
Roshila Nair: 064 877 0434
Lumumba Chia: 067 139 3612
Danmore Chuma: 062 482 1238
Portia Maluedi: 076 736 0684