“Billions against migration” learn from South Africa

By Jan-Philippe Schlüter, ARD-Studio Johannesburg

In this podcast ACMS /maHp researcher Zaheera Jinnah is interviewed by ARD.de on the lessons Germany and the European Union (EU) as a whole could learn from South Africa’s experience with migrants and refugees. 

At the southern end of the globe, South Africa is the refugee community, which Germany is in the north: the promised land that promises a better life. Until the Syrian crisis, South Africa was one of the countries with the largest number of asylum seekers in the world. South Africa has a wealth of experience with legal and illegal immigrants. And it also has one of the world’s most progressive refugee legislation, even more comprehensive than the UN Refugee Convention. Could Germany and the EU learn something from South Africa?

Germain jumps up the stairs of a large dwelling-house in the center of the city. The building has come down a bit: the ocher-colored plaster crumbles from the walls, free-hanging cables from satellite antennas, carpets and clothes hang dry in the hallways. It smells of perspiration and fat, light-colored light bulbs give sparse light. Germain shares his room with two other men. Ten square meters, three beds, on the walls a few clothes. Almost 90 euros a month, Germain pays for the extremely modest accommodation.

That is what is left of his dream of a better life in South Africa, for which he left his home Burundi twelve years ago. “In Burundi at that time civil war prevailed”, remembers Germain. “After killing my parents, I had to flee, I just wanted to save my life.”


Three million migrants live in South Africa

For many people, South Africa is the vaunted country on the continent. They come from Ethiopia, Somalia, Burundi, Congo, Zimbabwe and many other countries. It is because they flee from civil wars and violence, whether because they promise themselves a job and a better life for themselves and their families. Approximately three million migrants live in the 53 million state of South Africa.

Many travel legally as a visitor, and then remain simple. Others use the poorly secured borders for illegal entry. Corruption at official border crossings is not uncommon. There are also tugs operating in the border area to South Africa. How many refugees they cross the border is, however, unclear.


Work permit and social benefits for refugees

On the paper, South Africa has one of the most advanced refugee legislation in the world, says Zaheera Jinnah from the Wits University’s African Center for Migration and Society (ACMS): “You will be able to secure almost all the rights South Africans have ; trade, study.” They also have access to the free health care system and a partial right to social benefits.

Whoever is not legally residing in South Africa, however, is threatened with deportation. In 2014, more than 50,000 people have been returned to their homeland by the South African government. For migrants without valid papers, a deportation camp has been built with space for up to 4000 inmates to relieve the prisons.


Federal Foreign Office wants to learn from South Africa

South Africa’s experience in dealing with refugees could also teach Germany something. The former German Ambassador to South Africa, Walter Lindner, now the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, believes this. He has launched a working group to promote the exchange of experience.

“How do you deal with tugs, how do you deal with border security, how to integrate? Are there any repetitions?” According to Lindner are the questions to be answered in the group. With a clear goal: “Where can we learn something in Germany, and where can South Africa learn?”


Refugees are on their own

However, the contrast between what is on paper and reality as a refugee in South Africa is great. There are, on the one hand, bureaucratic hurdles: processing the asylum applications is extremely slow. At least 400,000 asylum seekers are waiting for a decision. Partially for years.

In addition, the refugees may theoretically have many rights. In reality, however, they are placed on their own. The state offers the basic conditions, everything else the refugees themselves have to do. Organized large-scale integration does not take place.

The refugees receive at most help from a few beneficial organizations. The big crowd is looking for support from people from your home country who have been living in South Africa for some time. A daily struggle for survival with the help of casual jobs and precarious living conditions is the result for many refugees.


Discrimination on the labor market

Fatma fled before the Civil War in her native Somalia. After her aunt and sister were killed, the family put together for Fatma’s escape. She had to leave her little daughter in Somalia. “It’s so hard to find a job or study place, people say we can not work with our status,” she says. “It happened to me that I applied and I was told: We do not want a refugee, we want a South African!”

But this is not even the worst: especially in the townships, refugees are again and again victims of xenophobic violence. Especially by poor South Africans, they are regarded as scapegoats stealing jobs and women.


Violence against African aliens

In 2008 and 2015 there were regular hunts for foreigners. At least 50 Africans from other countries have been killed. Germain from Burundi has also become a victim: “I’ve been hit by four guys on the street, I’m a refugee and I have not lost anything here,” he says. “They knocked out a tooth and injured me with a knife. I even had to go to the hospital.”

But with all problems: South Africa remains a country with a strong attraction for migrants and refugees. A country that could help Europe with its experiences is convinced by Zaheera Jinnah from Wits University. One example could be the freedom of movement and the right to work, she believes: “This is a very important factor for the refugees themselves to be able to take care of themselves and not be in the hands of the state.” This policy, contrary to other fears, would not lead to an uncontrollable influx of refugees. “I think that Germany and the EU could still learn something.”

[This podcast and article were originally sourced from ARD.de “Billions against migration” Learn from South Africa, and Google translated from German.]

About Zaheera Jinnah

Zaheera Jinnah has a PhD in anthropology and a background in development studies and social work. Her research interests are in labour migration, gender and diaspora studies. She is a research associate at the ACMS where she teaches, supervises graduate students, and engages in policy and academic research. Her recent publication is the co-edited book (Palgrave) ‘Gender and Mobility in Africa: Borders, Bodies and Boundaries'.