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Project 4: Migrants & Refugees

South Africa continues to play host to large numbers of migrants, a significant proportion of whom are refugees. And their presence in the country continues to evoke xenophobic and Afrophobic reactions from ordinary citizens and some political parties.

Our government’s record on refugee matters is, at best, a mixed one. On the one hand, during the COVID-19 pandemic, and under pressure from civil society groups, it accommodated the health and welfare needs of refugees and other migrants to a large extent. On the other hand, it has recently decided to end the concession granted to Zimbabwean immigrants known as the Zimbabwe Exemption Permit, with the result that nearly 180 000 people who have lived in SA for at least 12 years are due to be sent ‘home’.

These two examples illustrate the contested nature of migrant politics. No sooner has progress been made in one area than it is rolled back in another. With national elections approaching in 2024 it is likely that issues of refugee rights, border controls, forced repatriation and overall policy on migration will all become more highly politicised than they already are.

CPLO will continue to work closely with other groups in the Church and in secular society to scrutinise policy and legislation affecting migrant communities, and we will seek to build on some of our successful advocacy interventions of the last few years. Pope Francis keeps reminding the Church, and the wider world, about the vulnerability of ‘people on the move’, and about the duty we bear to them. His ‘four verbs’ – welcome, respect, promote, integrate – constitute a minimum threshold for acceptable practice in the field of refuges and migrants, and CPLO will continue to use them as the standard by which we judge our country’s laws and policies in this regard. 

Sub-themes for this project:

  1. Documentation – Issues around documents are key way of excluding mobile communities from access to constitutionally-guaranteed social goods, and of preventing them from regularising their presence in South Africa. A lack of documents also makes it hard for them to find protection in their vulnerability. Government’s failure to provide the necessary documents stems partly from a lack of political will, partly from bureaucratic obstacles and indifference, and partly from the prevalence of fraudulent practices. A key signal of the political direction of this whole issue can be seen in the fate of the Zimbabwe Exemption Permits.
  2. Xenophobia and other forms of discrimination – This is probably the most public manifestation of anti-immigrant sentiment. It has increased in scope both geographically and in terms of issues such as education, health and employment. Of particular note has been the impunity which accompanies such actions and the quasi-legitimacy that has grown in the public perception of such events. It is also becoming a major issue in the policy narratives of various political parties, and at recent local elections parties espousing such sentiments grew in popularity. In the light of the forthcoming national elections this topic will no doubt be escalated, and thus needs to be foregrounded and observed vigilantly.
  3. Trafficking in Persons – South Africa continues to be categorised as a country which receives, sends and acts as a transit point for the scourge of TIP, now estimated to be the in the top three most lucrative illegal activities worldwide. Of particular concern is that in 2022, for the second year running, SA was downgraded by the US TIP Report from a 2nd Tier country to a 2nd Tier Watch List country. The downgrade follows a lack of policy implementation, diminishing prosecutions, and tardy policy formulation. It is an area that needs to be considered regionally as some of the growing activity is cross-border. The Mozambique – Eswatini – SA corridor appears to be an important route, and there is a growing challenge for regional co-operation.
  4. Children – Unaccompanied minors, statelessness, and lack of access to social goods for migrant children, all remain areas of concern. This issue is general hermeneutic through which we view many of the crosscutting issues, and is thus a key tool for analysing policy. Such analysis raises the question: how are migrant children, who are often the most vulnerable demographic, affected by their experiences? Also in this category is the issue of statelessness, which remains a key means of exclusion for foreign children, but also for undocumented local children with a parent who is a foreign national.
  5. Health Issues – The issue of health, and the constitutional provisions on free access to basic health for everyone, have been vigorously contested, as noted under the sub-theme relating to xenophobia. Of note then must be the ongoing crafting of the National Health Insurance policy and its regulations so as to ensure that access to basic health care remains possible for all those entitled to it, including migrants.