ISSUE 09 | 2015
World Refugee Day, in difficult times
On 20 June 2016, we gathered at the Catholic Archdiocese of Johannesburg to commemorate World Refugee Day, in difficult times.
Globally, awareness of, support for, and integration of refugees has been one of the most difficult international policy issues. Too often, governments and citizens have shrunk away from their legal and moral duty to offer refuge to those fleeing war and persecution in their home countries.
The poorest countries host the largest refugee populations, while the richest countries host the fewest. In 2014, developing countries hosted 86% of all refugees.
This failure to share humanitarian responsibility for some of the world’s most vulnerable citizens, has been thrown into stark relief by the unwillingness of many European governments and citizens to accept asylum seekers fleeing devastating conflict and desperate circumstances, mostly but not exclusively from Syria.
While the challenges associated with refugees may be new for many Europeans, they are sadly not for us as Africans. According to UNHCR, 26% of the world’s approximately 14 million refugees are in Sub-Saharan Africa. This number has been steadily increasing in recent years.
But refugees are not numbers or statistics. Refugees […] are people like you and me, precious human beings with ideas, hopes and dreams. They are people with identities, cultures and histories, and most importantly, they are people with futures if we can provide them with the support that we would expect if we were in their position.
Refugees are resilient and productive; they can contribute much to our societies and economies if they are allowed to. Since 1998, South Africa has had one of the most liberal asylum seeker management regimes in Africa, and indeed the world.
Our commitment to help refugees is driven by our historic experiences as victims of oppression and state violence, our constitutional values and our international commitments. Our efforts to address the human cost of war and instability actually begin with our foreign policy.
Since 1994, South Africa has been absolutely committed to contributing to the peace, stability and development of Africa.
Our foreign policy seeks to contribute to a better Africa and a better world. Through our steadfast support and positive engagement in the African peace and security architecture, we hope to resolve and prevent the conflict and instability which force people away from their homes in the first place.
In terms of our asylum seeker regime, we are proud to be one of the few African countries which receive large volumes of asylum seekers, which do not have an encampment policy.
An unintended consequence of our liberal asylum regime has been that migrants who are not genuine refugees but are seeking economic opportunities have used it to attempt to regularise their stay in South Africa.
The sheer volume of applications from these migrants has placed an enormous burden on the refugee status determination process, which has disadvantaged genuine asylum seekers by delaying their decisions, in the past taking years where they should take no more than 6 months.
Resolving the strain on our asylum seeker system will require new policy proposals, improved operational efficiency, and support from partners such as UNHCR.
In terms of policy, this month we are releasing for comment a Green Paper on International Migration. One of the issues which it will address is policy options for managing migration from and within Southern Africa. By better managing regional migration we hope to reduce abuse of the asylum application system.
Work is also under way to improve our refugee policies. One of the things we know is that refugee status determination decisions must be concluded timeously for the system to work for asylum seekers.
Our immigration and asylum seeker management officials have done tremendous work to get to the point where we are now reaching status decisions within the target period in most cases.
We are poised to construct a backlog project which we hope we will be supported on by relevant stakeholders. We have to restructure asylum seeking to ensure that genuine refugees are assisted and have access to our Reception Centres.
Hence we are committed to constructing a Reception Centre in Lebombo. We are modernizing these centres with appointment and queue management systems to reduce inconveniences to asylum seekers as well as minimizing opportunities for corruption.
We call on the UNHCR to ensure that there is an integrated and shared registration process for all refugees and asylum seekers.
This is necessary, not only to grant the fundamental right to an identity particularly for children in refugee situations, but also to address the growing concern among nations that the asylum process may be misused by persons and groups intent on unleashing harm to the host nations.
Xenophobia is not endemic to SA but is a pernicious ill afflicting many societies, which may reflect insufficient social integration and public education. It is important that we raise awareness in our programmes about the unique plight of refugees, our responsibilities to one another, and the value that refugees bring to our country.
We remain steadfast as a country in our commitment to host and protect refugees. The vast majority of South Africans are supportive of refugees. We must ensure that we do not fall into the temptation seen in too many societies, of blaming refugees for pre-existing problems.
South Africa will always rise to the occasion in supporting Africans and others in distress, even as we partner with our sister countries in addressing the root causes of that distress.
[This is an extract of the address at the World Refugee Day event held at the Catholic Archdiocese of Johannesburg, on 20 June 2016]
Minister of Home Affairs