Surge in xenophobic violence in South Africa requires human rights-based immigration policy

Press release
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In the face of violence that has targeted foreign nationals across South Africa over the past few weeks, Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR) and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) recognises the duty of authorities to adopt an effective national strategy aimed at aligning their immigration policy with regional and international human rights provisions in order to prevent and redress human rights violations against migrants. The first steps being taken in this regard are welcomed.

Our organisations are encouraged by the government’s latest efforts to curb the tide of violence. While more needs to be done in stemming these attacks, the government’s actions are a step in the right direction. These include the swift reaction by police to both deter and arrest perpetrators. The prosecution of alleged perpetrators is also a welcome development – most recently in the arrest of suspects in the murder of Emmanuel Sithole (they will appear in court today). We welcome Police Minister Nathi Nhleko’s announcement of a national campaign to battle “afrophobia” and hope that he will ensure strict adherence to this campaign to find long-lasting solutions to the problem.

Without continuing these measures, xenophobia and violence against foreign nationals will continue to spread.

The deaths and thousands of foreign nationals displaced in South Africa draw attention to the need for urgent, effective and comprehensive actions from authorities to address systemic deficiencies in the current immigration policy, ” said the FIDH’s Deputy Secretary General, Alice Mogwe.

Last week, in scenes reminiscent of 2008, xenophobic violence spread across Durban when thousands of South African began attacking foreign nationals and looting their shops. The violence has led to the death of at least six people so far and the displacement of thousands more. According to UNHCR figures, approximately 2 400 people who fled the Durban attacks are taking refuge in three camps in the area. Inflammatory and hateful statements by traditional leaders and government officials are likely to have fuelled the violence. On 21 March, Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini told the media that foreigners should “go home” and on 15 April, Edward Zuma, the President’s son, echoed inaccurate and discriminatory views in the media.

South African public figures have to change mind sets and send messages of integration, cohesion and understanding. Instead of using their position of influence to make damaging statements, they must seize opportunities to encourage positive social change ,” said LHR’s Patricia Erasmus.

Our organisations further acknowledge King Goodwill Zwelithini’s lukewarm address a few days ago that was intended to clarify the statements he made in March. We do however lament the fact that no unequivocal retraction or apology was made and call on the King to take responsibility for the damaging consequences his statements have had.

Several government officials have blamed the violence on criminality rather than xenophobia. In response to the violence, they suggested the establishment of refugee camps which LHR and FIDH strongly oppose.

Claims that South Africa is “flooded” by “illegal immigrants” are based on misinformation and misconceptions of South Africa’s refugee system. Many factors contribute to a person being without the appropriate administrative papers and few of these are within their control. These include the tightening of immigration laws that increase administrative hurdles, serious corruption at refugee reception offices and the unlawful closure of reception offices without sufficient contingencies in place, as well as the non-compliance by the Department of Home Affairs with court orders. Such situations are further caused by an asylum system in crisis, plagued by poor decision-making, inefficiencies and severe backlogs.

LHR and FIDH call upon the authorities of South Africa to reinforce their human rights-based legal framework in order to prevent and redress human rights violations against migrants. Authorities must address systemic deficiencies in the asylum system that prevent access to regular status. They must provide widespread training on the human rights of migrants and the prohibition on discrimination to police services, immigration services, public health and education services and local administrations. As a sign of this human-rights base approach, South Africa should take this occasion to announce ratification of the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families.

Our organisations call upon the African Union and the Southern African Development Community to echo the recommendations made by our organisations. LHR and FIDH also call on the current sitting of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights to support these recommendations through the adoption of a Resolution which firmly and publicly condemns the violence, which calls upon the authorities of South Africa to abide by their obligations under the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and requires a promotion mission to South Africa with its Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Migrants, Refugees and Asylum Seekers.

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