Refugees: positive ruling but issues remain (interview)
“A courageous decision”, said Father David Holdcroft, director of the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) South Africa based in Johannesburg, to MISNA in commenting an appeal filed in Pretoria’s supreme court by Ethiopian and Somali refugees and asylum seekers, whose right to work as traders in the country.
Why is the decision to turn to the high court and ruling so important?
“Because the frequent physical attacks against migrants and refugees, as also looting in stores, is only the tip of the iceberg: many xenophobic behaviours occur on a local level, with municipal officials applying illegal norms or decisions – in many cases intentionally, as in this case. This ruling however reiterates what should already be clear: South African law grants the right for refugees and asylum seekers to move freely around the nation and work. Laws are not the problem in South Africa, but their application”.
Is the problem only in applying the laws, or is there a general trend of xenophobia in the society?
“I do not beleive that South Africans are generally xenophobic, but can be manipulated by criminal or political elements. Many of them are poor and live in a very competetive society: they see refugees living in the camps who are looking for work or opening businesses, and see them in reality as ‘economic migrants’. It is a comprehensible view, but a wrong one. So the government and structures like ours need to change this perception, emphasizing the benefits that refugees bring, also to the economy. A higher demand of services in fact creates jobs and creates wealth, even when they obtain one. It is a sign of closed mindedness to consider them ‘in competition’ with South Africans”.
A wave of xenophobic attacks six years ago, mainly against Somalis, left 62 dead. How has the condition of migrants in South Africa changed since?
“I do not feel I could say it has improved. In the years that followed, aside from 2009, a higher number of refugees and asylum seekers were killed in respect to that occasion, when many of the victims were also South Africans, married to foreigners or their employees. This statistic shows that the root problems behind the 2008 attacks were not addressed by the government and society”. [CO/BO]