The quiet violence of refugee life: It’s not xenophobia – it’s just plain prejudice

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Xenophobia, and the government’s response to it, is back in the headlines. The police, army and officials from the Department of Home Affairs have staged several joint operations under the banner of Operation Fiela-Reclaim, and while many South Africans have welcomed this very public show of force, it points to deeply-rooted prejudices within our state machinery.

The government and most recently ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe, have insisted that Operation Fiela-Reclaim is not designed to target foreigners. But just after the operation launched earlier in May, over 700 foreigners were arrested in Johannesburg – 200 of them in one weekend. Over this past weekend, reports stated that 90 foreigners were arrested in Port Elizabeth, again under the auspices of Operation Fiela. Whether the raids are targeted or not, there has clearly been a disproportionate impact on a particular group: foreigners. This seems to point to deeply-rooted prejudices within our state machinery. These prejudices are not only evident in public displays of force, but also in the systemic inefficiencies and decisions taken by Home Affairs every day.

Away from the front pages of newspapers, there is a quiet violence in the lives of foreigners that we don’t talk about. It manifests in a system that forces someone to spend the night sleeping in a queue at Home Affairs in the hope that her asylum seeker permit is renewed the following day. A system that forces a woman to travel four days from Cape Town to Musina to get her permit renewed. She has no way of knowing whether this time it will be renewed for one, three, four or six months. There are no guarantees here.

In 2010, a decision was made to close down a number of Refugee Reception Offices (RROs); one of them being Cape Town’s RRO. The decision to close the RRO was successfully challenged in court by the UCT Refugee Rights Unit and Legal Resources Centre (LRC) Scalabrini v Minister of Home Affairs, where the SCA declared the decision to close the RRO unlawful. A similar decision was made regarding the RRO in Port Elizabeth. This was also recently successfully challenged in the Supreme Court of Appeal by Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR) in Somali Association for South Africa v Minister of Home Affairs. However, Home Affairs has now taken that judgment on appeal to the Constitutional Court.

After its unsuccessful attempt to close the Cape Town RRO, Home Affairs simply made it increasingly difficult for asylum seekers to live in Cape Town. First, it decided to stop accepting new asylum seeker applications (this is also being challenged in court). This meant and means that if you are a newcomer, you have to apply for asylum seeker status in another office – currently Musina, Pretoria or Durban.

Then, in 2012, the Cape Town RRO decided to stop renewing permits that were originally issued at other offices. This effectively means the Cape Town RRO only needs to deal with outstanding claims and then it can eventually close.

The ‘other offices’ decision was also successfully challenged by the UCT Refugee Rights Unit in Abdulaahi v Minister of Home Affairs. Unfortunately, the relief offered by the judgment was limited to a set list of applicants. For those not on the list, a new court challenge, in Nbaya and Others v Minister of Home Affairs, was launched on 28 April 2015 by the LRC; but the case is yet to be decided. For now, if your name isn’t on the list and you’re an asylum seeker in Cape Town with a permit issued at another office, you’ll need to travel to Durban (1,635km), Pretoria (1,459km) or Musina (almost 2,000km) for renewals.

This means taking time off work or away from your family to travel. You’ll need money for the journey and you might lose your job if you’re away from work for too long. Your relatives are probably asylum seekers too – you’ll have to take your kids out of school for a few days at a time so they can also have their permits renewed. Then you have to repeat this process at arbitrary intervals depending upon the expiry date of your current permit. If you cannot make that trip, you risk being labelled an ‘illegal’; perhaps even one of the many ‘illegals’ arrested and detained in Operation Fiela, and simply listed in news reports alongside the number of counterfeit goods confiscated, or amount of illegal firearms seized.

Through all of this, you’re not welcome in Cape Town. There simply isn’t a system in place that allows you to settle and create a life in South Africa’s Mother City – you’re too busy coasting from one permit expiry date to the next. If you’re really lucky, it will take six months for your asylum seeker claim to be finalised. But it can also take up to ten years. The Refugees Act makes provision for asylum claims to be processed within 180 days of an application being received. We all know the difference between theory and practice, though. The inefficiencies in this process mean that as a country we’re selling ourselves short by not recognising the contributions made by migrants economically, culturally and through richness of diversity. (See here and here.)

I read a comment about homophobia once. It suggested we stop calling it ‘homophobia’ – that it was really homoprejudice. It’s not about fear, and labelling it as such absolves the perpetrators. It offers a convenient linguistic escape route so that we no longer have to look honestly at our preconceived opinions and unjust notions about another group. The same should be said about xenophobia. Yes, the dictionary definition says it is an intense dislike or fear of those from other countries, but having phobia in the word links it to fear. This is not about fear. It is about prejudice. It is about hate. It is about not seeing foreigners as fully human. These attitudes start at the top and manifest in a system that is failing some of the most vulnerable people in our society.

It is these quiet, often unnoticed, acts of violence that need to be confronted before we are able to properly and honestly face up to these unsettling public displays of force, control and hate. DM