The South African government’s hardening attitude toward foreigners seeking refuge in the country may be fueling intolerance toward immigrants that exploded into attacks and looting in townships, according to security analysts and human rights lawyers.
At least five people, including a baby, have been killed in violence that began on Jan. 18 in Soweto, in southwestern Johannesburg, when residents turned on a Somali shop owner after he shot and killed a 14-year-old boy during an alleged robbery. Residents went on the rampage, targeting small convenience shops owned by Somalis, Pakistanis and other immigrants, forcing many of them to flee.
The government has blamed the violence on criminals rather than an undercurrent of xenophobia that continues to fuel tension in townships following a wave of attacks against immigrants in 2008 that left about 60 people dead. Proposals to tighten refugee laws and comments by government ministers Lindiwe Zulu and Nomvula Mokonyane bemoaning the spread of foreign-owned shops in townships may be inflaming the situation.
“Government has contributed indirectly to the tension by not taking enough steps to foster integration,” Patricia Erasmus, manager of the Refugee and Migrant Rights Program at Lawyers for Human Rights, said by phone from Pretoria on Jan. 29. “Following the 2008 xenophobic attacks on foreigners, the Human Rights Commission recommended a number of integration programs, very few of which have been implemented.”
Mokonyane, who is water and sanitation minister, said in a posting on her Facebook account on Jan. 2 that the spread of immigrant-owned shops in townships, known as spazas, must stop.
“Almost every second outlet or even former general deal shops are run by people of Somali or Pakistan origin,” Mokonyane wrote. “I am not xenophobic fellow comrades and friends, but this is a recipe for disaster, which I will raise with the authorities.”
Zulu, minister of small business development who is heading up a government task force to investigate the flare up of violence, said on Jan. 29 that foreigners must share their trade secrets with locals, who have lost out on business opportunities and skills under apartheid. That will help foster integration and curb violence and looting, she said.
“Those kind of comments from senior government and ANC officials border on irresponsibility, they inflame the situation,” Gary van Staden, a political analyst at NKC Independent Economists, said by phone from Johannesburg on Jan. 30. “The message it sends is that you can expect no help or protection from us.”
South Africa received 816,838 asylum seekers in the six years to 2013, making the country one of the largest recipients of people seeking refuge, according to Deputy Minister of Home Affairs Fatima Chohan. The government approved about 7,300 applications for refugee status in 2013 alone, she said in a speech in September.
Many of those seeking asylum come from the rest of Africa, including Zimbabwe and Somalia, fleeing poverty, economic crises, war and government persecution. There are about 50,000 Somali nationals living in South Africa, Amir Sheik, chairman of the Somali Community Board of South Africa, said by phone on Monday.
The government’s tightening of immigration rules, proposals that may limit the protection asylum seekers receive, and the intolerance shown by immigration officials toward refugees are factors fueling tension, Erasmus said.
Lawyers for Human Rights reported in June 2014 witnessing security guards employed by the Department of Home Affairs assaulting asylum-seekers as they rushed to try to file applications at Marabastad, near the capital, Pretoria. The department said in a Jan. 29 statement that the refugee center has been identified as an “area of concern” because of the continuous reports of corruption and fraud at the facility.
“The government has made it more difficult for foreign nationals to visit and work in South Africa under the misguided belief that this will improve security,” Gareth Newham, the head of the Governance, Crime and Justice unit at the Pretoria- based Institute for Security Studies, said in an e-mailed response to questions on Jan. 27.
The state’s “negative approach to foreign nationals coming to South Africa also likely contributed to the public climate of hostility against foreign nationals,” he said.
The authorities are making sure that those involved in looting and criminal activity are being held accountable, while at the same time working on programs to educate the public about immigration, Mayihlome Tshwete, spokesman for the Department of Home Affairs, said by phone on Monday. About 178 people have been arrested so far for last month’s looting and violence, according to the police.
In the 2008 xenophobic attacks, about 50,000 people were forced to flee their homes, seeking refuge at churches and camps set up by the government. The Human Rights Commission made a number of recommendations after investigating the violence, including that the Department of Education add issues of migration and xenophobia into the schools’ syllabus. It also suggested that the Department of Home Affairs work with communities to develop plans to improve social cohesion and strengthen human rights.
“What is contributing to violence is the communities’ perception of foreign people,” said Erasmus. “There seems to be an environment of being unwelcome within host communities.”
While the police’s quick response in arresting looters in Soweto was positive, “what we wish though is for a longer term response to xenophobia,” she said.
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