The Executive Mayor of Tswane, Dr. Kgosientso Ramokgopa,
The Regional Representative UN High Commissioner for Refugees Mr SandaKimbimbi,
Representatives of refugee organisations present here today,
Ladies and gentlemen
June is youth month in South Africa. We focus on young people and recall their contribution to the struggle.
Many of them were prepared to risk their lives and liberty for a free South Africa.
In particular we highlight the contribution that many young people made to education struggles during apartheid and since the beginning of our democracy.
On 16 June 1976 pupils in Soweto took to the streets to protest changes to the curriculum and began a revolt that rocked the foundations of the apartheid system. Many of the leaders went into exile and became refugees in SADC countries and elsewhere. Others stayed and suffered the terrible consequences.
The UN’s ‘1 family torn apart by war is too many campaign’ encourages us to think about children. Children suffer the consequence of armed conflict and displacement more than adults. Their sense of security is destroyed and it is difficult to rebuild that sense of security in other countries and other places. It’s right that the UN promotes this campaign so that we think about the importance of families and the importance of giving children the security that a family provides.
In South Africa we have been thinking hard about how to support families, not because of war but because our tradition of migrant labour has destroyed the human fabric of so many African families. Even today there are more divided families than together families. One out of every two South African families lives without a father. Breaking it down further into ethnicity, 2 in 3 African families live without a father.
When I suggest that fathers are important in families I don’t support patriarchal power. I suggest that fathers are important to make another point.
The social engineering of the migrant labour system has been a source of irreparable social breakdown in families, in communities, and entire nations. Of course, women are equally important in this if we are to make progress towards building new societies, but traditionally men have left their families to find work and we have to respond to this challenge in our society.
We have begun to discuss family as a policy and cohesion issue in South Africa because we recognize the necessity of rebuilding the social fabric of communities.
Refugee communities are affected in a similar fashion by social and community upheaval and require dedicated support and attention.
I would like to reassure refugees here today of our admiration and support for your strength and resilience in the face of huge adversity.
It’s a source of shame to us that you are at risk in the face of anti-immigrant and anti-foreigner sentiment.
Our brothers and sisters on the African continent played an important role in the achievement of democracy and freedom in South Africa.
They extended hospitality and asylum to many of our exiled leaders and their families during the oppression of apartheid.
The frontline states of Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Angola, Lesotho, Zambia, Tanzania and Botswana paid an even higher price for supporting the anti-apartheid struggle. Many of their citizens perished in raids into their territories by the apartheid security forces.
We are developing policies to provide effective and humane administrative assistance to genuine refugees.
We have tended to assume goodwill on the part of receiving communities and have done little to confront negative attitudes and genuine misunderstanding on all sides. We are considering a community diversity initiative to implement throughout the country. Our programme will work closely with young people, teachers and parents to build communities of peace.
We also hope to work closely with the UNHCR and relevant NGOs to find ways of encouraging integration and cooperation in all host communities. We hope we can persuade community leaders to create language teaching teams to help in learning local languages. We also plan to develop orientation programmes and information to all participants on refugee and international human rights law. We hope to be able to teach the value of diversity the positive attributes of diverse communities.
We will not shirk our responsibilities under our refugee law or international conventions.
South Africa remains one of the most liberal countries in regard to the benefits asylum seekers and refugees are allowed in our country.
In South Africa refugees and asylum seekers are able to move freely. Both refugees and asylum seekers are able to work and enjoy basic services.
Asylum seekers can apply to work and study while awaiting the outcome of their application to be finalised.
It is true that we do not grant refugee status easily. Show me a country that does. But we do take longer than we should in determining refugee status.
We are taking steps to process applications more efficiently and fairly.
We are reviewing our procedures and implementing a fast track capacity to process application status.
Furthermore, we are strengthening our partnerships with international organisations including the UNHCR. This extends to finding durable solutions for refugees after a cessation has been declared by the United Nations and they are able to return to their homeland.
As we implement the Angolan cessation, we are concerned that many people regard refugee status as a permanent status. There is little interest in their fate in their countries of origin. I have noted this in my recent interactions with some NGOs and refugees.
Our challenge is that the UNHCR declares and then the host countries have to act. When they do, they are attacked as deporting refugees. We need greater help from our senior partner, the UNHCR. It should also play a greater role in briefing NGOs about these matters.
We are also going to liaise very closely with neighbouring countries as part of developing a regional response to asylum seeker and refugee management within the Southern African Development Community (SADC).
We believe some of our neighbouring countries do not do enough to meet their international obligations to refugees.
I must stress that illegal immigration, human trafficking and transnational trade in the abuse of women girls and boys is a huge security threat.
In closing, it’s important to us that refugees continue to see South Africa as a country where there is respite from adversity and hope for the future. I would like to recognize the sterling role that the UNHCR plays in supporting the world community in upholding its commitments towards refugee and asylum-seekers despite the practical challenges.
I thank you.