By Francine Ingabire
The ASC talks to Somali shop owners about their experiences in South Africa.
The encyclopedia defines migration as movement to another place often by a large group of people or animals and immigration as the movement of people into a country to which they are not natives in order to settle there.
Today human migration has become a big news story for journalists, a hot topic for debate among politicians, civil society and international organizations. This is mainly because countries around the world are facing many challenges and people are moving in search of safer or better places to settle. People move because they feel threatened by natural disasters, such as earthquakes, that destroy their homes and infrastructure, droughts or floods that affect food security and livelihoods, civil wars and political unrest where people are persecuted or killed based on ethnicity, religion, race or political affiliation.
In recent times we read stories of mass migration from poor nations, such as people fleeing poverty from South America to the USA and people fleeing wars, persecutions and poverty from Sub Saharan-Africa to Europe. Such movements have caused outcries among western nations because no nation is willing to accommodate such large numbers of immigrants no matter how rich they are.
On the African continent, South Africa has been attracting many immigrants from other African as well as Asian countries since 1990 because it is seen to uphold human rights and have peace and economic stability. However, it hasn’t been an African paradise as most of these immigrants thought. They constantly face challenges such as failing to legalize their stay in the country due to lengthy processes involved, hostility from locals usually surfacing as xenophobic attacks, language and cultural barriers etc. Part of the reason immigrants may be vulnerable to prejudice can be attributed to the following myths and misunderstandings:
Asylum seekers do not pay tax yet they get access to the benefits such as primary healthcare and basic education at the expense of the locals. The fact is that every human being, refugee or not, needs access to these basic services.
Immigrants take jobs that belong to the locals. The truth is despite often having a high level of education and experience, immigrants in South Africa do not easily find decent work. They struggle to find jobs in big companies or government institutions, so they tend to go for the jobs that the locals do, like domestic work and manual jobs. These jobs are usually temporary with no contracts or benefits.
All undocumented immigrants are criminals. The process of applying for asylum in South Africa is a lengthy process hence some immigrants find themselves illegal in the country and at risk of being arrested or even persecuted by the locals. A good example is the April 2015 xenophobic attacks that were provoked by utterances made by the Zulu king portraying illegal immigrants in the country as criminals who should be sent back to their countries of origin. In every society there some who commit crime, but not all immigrants will resort to crime as a means of survival, documented or not. It is a painful truth that none of those who were victims of attacks were found to have committed any criminal activities.
Immigrants do not contribute to the economy. The belief that immigrants just take is not true. Even though many immigrants have no access to banking or credit facilities in South Africa, they manage establish themselves in the informal sector by opening small businesses. These small shops bring basic commodities close to the people, thereby cutting costs of traveling to bigger shops. They operate longer hours to cater for those who leave work late. These kinds of businesses are means by which those who cannot find other jobs sustain their livelihoods; they create jobs for themselves and sometimes for the unemployed South Africans.
Immigrants and refugees should live in refugee camps. Camps are like enclosures that prevent refugees from mixing with people in the surrounding areas. Making people live in camps infringes on their human rights, personal growth, freedom of movement, and restricts them from socially integrating with the local community or even from participating in the host country‘s economic activities.
Immigrants marry local women. Most immigrants come as family units and only a few are in the country without their partners. Many immigrants, especially from African countries, prefer to marry the people who speak the same language or share the same culture. For those who want to marry a person they love despite their differences, I believe those people should be allowed to do so, and have their decision respected.
While we all appreciate the efforts by the government of South Africa, and the civil society in educating the people about the rights of immigrants and fighting the hostility of some of the local people towards immigrants, big companies hesitate to accommodate immigrant job seekers and strict bank regulations restrict access to banking facilities. In order to discredit all these myths, there is need to create awareness not only at the grass root level, but also among the big companies, and government institutions. It is only when everyone understands the reality, that the people will start treating immigrants and refugees with dignity.
Francine Ingabire is an immigrant from Rwanda currently living in Johannesburg, South Africa. She has passion for peace and social justice in Africa.