The Struggles of Refugees in South Africa


SEATTLE — When people hear the term “refugee crisis,” most will automatically think of the Middle East, forgetting about the ongoing crisis happening in Africa. It has left hundreds of thousands displaced, and in South Africa alone there is a population of 586,000 asylum seekers and refugees living in destitute conditions, barely surviving. Life for refugees in South Africa is rife with xenophobia and discrimination, in addition to dealing with a corrupt government which makes day to day life a constant struggle.

Coming from Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda and other countries in central and northern Africa, refugees flee for a myriad of reasons. However, most of the people fleeing are doing so to escape political instability and persecution, and yet, some are making the decision to return home because of the unlivable conditions.

Asylum Seeker and Refugee Process

Having hitchhiked or walked to the border, most of the asylum seekers and refugees in South Africa arrive with no papers. Upon arrival, an asylum seeker must immediately go to a refugee center or reception office to file for asylum seeker permits, which after further approval becomes a refugee permit. The process is fraught with issues, such as delays. An asylum seeker permit must be renewed every three to six months; however, decisions and renewals can take up to 12 months to process, leaving the asylum seekers without the right to work or study. This creates a cycle of hardships for asylum seekers trying to establish a new life.

Rises in deportations have refugees and asylum seekers questioning the longevity of their safety. It has been reported that between 50 and 150 asylum seekers are arrested and deported every day while filing for permit renewals. This has resulted in people being afraid to renew their permits, as the threat of arrest is too real. Because they cannot work or study without a valid permit or papers, it creates a cycle of poverty, and refugees and asylum seekers become the target of hate and violence.

Xenophobia Against Refugees in South Africa

The corruption within the South African government has left a nation of people frustrated and angered and pointing the finger at foreigners, in this case, refugees and asylum seekers. The government has struggled to acknowledge the violent attacks perpetrated by people who believe that refugees and asylum seekers are the cause of instability and poverty. Without the government’s acknowledgement or investment into the issue, xenophobic sentiment will continue to run rampant throughout South Africa and claim thousands of victims along the way. This makes it imperative that the issue is addressed to ensure the continued safety of displaced people.

Movements Fighting Xenophobia

Organizations such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) are on the frontline working toward the elimination of these injustices. UNHCR has created resources aimed at rehabilitating, empowering and integrating refugees and asylum seekers. Smaller organizations such as Sonke Gender Justice are working on a local level to facilitate movements to eradicate negative stereotypes and develop equal opportunities for all.

The lives of refugees in South Africa are riddled with violence and instability. The maltreatment of innocent refugees and asylum seekers is a phenomenon that is, at last, being recognized and fought. It is imperative that the South African government recognizes the lack of services for refugees and asylum seekers and ensures the establishment of resources.

– Trelawny Robinson
Photo: Flickr


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