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Deprivation breeds xenophobia

Xenophobia against asylum seekers and illegal immigrants alike is on the rise in some countries of Southern Africa, according to refugee agencies and rights organisations.

Clarence Tshitereke of the Southern Africa Migration Project (SAMP) told IRIN that deprivation suffered by locals is likely to lead to foreigners being made the scapegoats. "Frustrated and disillusioned by deprivation, people often create a frustration-scapegoat," Tshitereke said.

A recent survey by SAMP, for example, found that 45 percent of South Africans wanted strict limits on the number of foreigners entering the country, while 25 percent wanted a total ban of foreigners. Xenophobia, added Tshitereke, represents a deep fear and dislike of the unknown.

"This subjective fear and absolute dislike seems to have translated into intense tension and violence by South Africans towards immigrants," Tshitereke told IRIN.

Tshitereke said adversarial attitudes towards foreigners are fuelled by negative coverage of cross-border migration issues in the South African media, particularly as it relates to undocumented "illegal" migration.

In 1997, for example, 30 asylum seekers were killed in South Africa in unprovoked attacks, while in June two Senegalese hawkers were thrown off a moving train in Pretoria by a group of unemployed South Africans who were returning from a march in support of job creation.

Government ministers and spokespersons in Southern Africa also fuel negative perceptions towards migrants, Tshitereke said. A South African minister of home affairs was recently quoted as saying: "With unemployment running at above 34 percent, and millions of illegals making a living in South Africa, it can be postulated that if all the illegal aliens were removed, the unemployment problem would come to an end."

Dominik Bartsch of UNHCR agrees that some government officials do
perpetuate myths regarding refugees. "When there were outbreaks of the Ebola virus in Zambia recently, some health ministry spokespeople attributed this outbreak to refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)," Bartsch said.

In July, the Zimbabwe government apologised to Mozambique for the
harassment suffered by about 600 Mozambicans who were deported in a pre-dawn operation considered brutal by rights groups. The authorities reportedly used police dogs, horses and helicopters to round up the Mozambicans in what the government called a crackdown on criminals. The deportees claimed they were not allowed to collect their belongings before they were dumped across the border.

Last month, Malawi's immigration officials detained 25 Eritreans for about one week after entering the country on what the officials called "fake visas" obtained in Ethiopia. The Eritreans claimed they were seeking asylum as they were being persecuted in Ethiopia, which was at war with their country. The Eritreans were then forced into a plane bound for Ethiopia. One of the refugees died in the scuffle with the police.

The UNHCR estimates that as of September this year, there were nearly 300,000 refugees and asylum seekers in Southern Africa, of whom 200,000 were in Zambia and 65,000 in South Africa. Most of the refugees came from the Great Lakes region, Angola and Somalia.

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