by Sharon Chetty, The Sowetan 10 May 2000
PLEASE NOTE: Readers wishing to reproduce and
reference this article
should contact the editors of the The Sowetan for permission
Johannesburg - Although South Africa has not yet been inundated by refugees, ii needs to increase its capacity to deal with displaced persons.
As conflicts on the rest of the continent and region persist, South Africans are increasingly under pressure to become sympathetic to the plight of refugees, as larger numbers find their way into the country.
At the same time, dealing with refugees is a relatively new phenomenon in this country and the Government still needs to pay more attention to this, says the outgoing head of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Nicolas Bwakira.
In the five years he has been in Pretoria, he has noted a significant lack of capacity within South African institutions to deal with people fleeing from conflicts and persecution in their homelands, he says.
By the end of last year the South African Government had received 58 966 applications for asylum.
Of those 14518 had been successful, meaning they were recognised officially a~ refugees, 26 873 were rejected and 17 605 cases are pending.
The main countries of origin of the refugees have been the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Angola, Rwanda, Burundi, Ethiopia and Somalia, bearing out the priority Pretoria has placed on helping those governments sort out their problems.
And unlike our neighbours for whom large numbers of refugees have a direct bearing on social services like schools and hospitals, South Africa has been in a position to make a cash contribution to the UNHCR this year of R3,5 million to be used in Angola, the DRC and the Great Lakes region.
The UNHCR has been assisting in analysing the cases to help determine if they were genuine asylum seekers or economic migrants who abuse the system.
Bwakira says that while the Government is new at dealing with the issue, it has nevertheless done a good job in working on the backlog, especially the technical and legal questions.
There is a dichotomy S while the (South African) Government may have good policies, its bureaucrats dont always apply it properly. However, the technical capabilities of both the South African and regional governments still appeared to be limited, he said.
In particular, officials working in the field tended to have a limited knowledge and understanding of the situations in the countries from which people had fled.
It is fair to admit that the South African Government and Department of Home Affairs needs to be improved. We have offered to assist, said Bwakira.
As with other priorities, like improving border security and customs controls, the governments of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) needed to make the harmonisation of their legislation and co-ordination at the political, technical and administrative levels a priority, he said.
Over the past five years the political and economic situation in the SADC region had become far more complicated, requiring governments to be better prepared to deal with the greater movement of both refugees and internally displaced people.
Despite the attainment of peace in Mozambique, the SADC has been ridden by more conflict: the civil war in Angola has persisted and the conflict in the DRC has sucked in several neighbours.
These include Rwanda, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Angola and Namibia.
In addition, the Angolan war has had enormous repercussions on neighbours Namibia, where fighting has taken place in the northern areas, and Zambia, where there is a massive concentration of refugees.
The situation has become more volatile and complex. Therefore more effort is now needed at the political level to address issues at the root cause.
There is an urgent need for political organisations to find more durable solutions Only if there is peace will the refugee problem be solved. Of the 25 million refugees worldwide, 15 million are on this continent.
Bwakira says the instability and ripple effect of having masses of people displaced on the continent, albeit one the size of Africa, is profound. In Angola foi example, there are an estimated 3,7 million internally displaced people. In addition, there are about 13 000 refugees from the DRC, Congo Republic, Rwanda, Burundi and Chad.
Zambia has around 223 000, the bulk from Angola, DRC, Rwanda and Burundi, while Tanzania has 375 893, mainly from the rest of the Great Lakes region and Somalia.
Bwakira says that while a growing number of displaced people are classified as internally displaced, their status is still of concern as economically they have the same needs as refugees.
However, money is not the solution to the crisis, he admits.
While the UNHCR may have a budget of $300 million (about R2,1 billion) to deal with the continent, even if it was multiplied ten-fold, it would not be sufficient to resolve the problems, which has to be done by African leaders, he says.
While South Africa is not confronted with the same problems as poorer countries like Tanzania, which has for decades taken in asylum seekers and at times had to accommodate huge refugees camps, there is nevertheless a growing need to make the general population more aware of the issue.
Acts of violence spurred by xenophobia have highlighted just how acute the problem can be and Bwakira says his impression is that the situation has not improved that much.
However, he reiterated the need for education and the media to play a role in combating xenophobia.
South Africa is a country which has different cultures and ethnic groups.
If the issue is not addressed properly it could derail the political process.
There should not be a confusion with foreigners and criminals or refugees and criminals, he added, pointing to the increasing blame being placed on illegal immigrants as law-breakers.
The economy and a competition for resources influenced attitudes, he said, drawing on the example of European countries and the increase in xenophobia whenever there were tough economic conditions.