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World Refugee Day: Helping refugees, asylum seekers feel at home in SA
Author: Yeukai Chideya
Published: 20/06/2024

​​World Refugee Day is observed annually on 20 June. In an opinion piece for the Daily Maverick, Yeukai Chideya from the Institute for Life Course Health Research writes that we should strive to create a culture that accepts and supports refugees and asylum seekers, and makes them feel at home in South Africa.

  • Read the original article below or click here for the piece as published.

​Yeukai Chideya*

Observed annually on 20 June, World Refugee Day draws our attention to the plight of millions of people who had to flee their home country to escape conflict, persecution, human rights violations, and violence. The theme for 2024 is "Promote Empathy and Understanding." Globally, there are over 36 million refugees and asylum seekers with about half of them children. The number of refugees and asylum seekers is expected to continue increasing due to ongoing violent conflicts worldwide.

According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, South Africa hosts approximately 250,000 refugees and asylum seekers from various parts of Africa. Unlike some host countries, South Africa does not implement a camp policy. As a result, many refugees and asylum seekers struggle to integrate into local communities due to challenges such as language barriers and lack of understanding of the culture. This difficulty is worsened by widespread xenophobia, often triggered by the absence of effective integration programmes that could help locals understand the experiences of refugees and asylum seekers. Consequently, refugees and asylum seekers are frequently viewed as a threat by local residents, who are already struggling with limited resources due to high levels of poverty and unemployment in South Africa.

In 2012, while working at The Trauma Centre for Survivors of Violence and Torture (hereafter referred to as The Trauma Centre), I was entrusted with leading a project focused on providing psychosocial support to refugees. As a social worker, my responsibilities included providing counselling, facilitating group therapy sessions, and referring refugees and asylum seekers to appropriate institutions. These institutions included healthcare facilities and non-governmental organisations that offered limited essential resources, such as food parcels, as well as services like English language training and craft-making workshops to help the refugees earn an income.

Providing support to refugees and asylum seekers was one of the most challenging tasks I had undertaken, as I often felt helpless due to our clients' significant socio-economic and safety concerns and needs. Before fleeing to South Africa, some had witnessed their families being massacred, experienced sexual violence or were forced to harm their loved ones. Despite having endured horrendous torture and trauma in their home countries, which required psychosocial intervention, the refugee and asylum seeker clients primarily requested practical and safety assistance. Addressing these urgent socio-economic needs was particularly challenging given the limited resources available to them.

Another significant challenge faced by refugees and asylum seekers in South Africa is the difficulty in renewing their legal documentation. The process can be very frustrating, often requiring internet access or travel fare, both of which are not readily available due to limited finances, internet literacy, and access to a computer or smartphone. The lack of legal documentation makes it challenging for refugees and asylum seekers to find employment and provide the quality of life they had hoped for their children. Each family member must apply for their own documentation, and it is not uncommon for children born to refugee or asylum-seeker parents to complete Grade 12 without legal documentation. Not only does this hinder the children's ability to further their education and find a job, but also increases their risk of remaining stateless, perpetuating the cycle of hardship from which their parents have been unable to escape.

 Another challenge I encountered as a trauma counsellor was male refugees and asylum seekers not being able to provide for their families. Many of them had good, well-paying jobs in their home countries before fleeing to South Africa. Unfortunately, they either could not bring their certifications with them, or their educational qualifications were not recognised in South Africa. With the high unemployment rate in the country, refugees and asylum seekers must scramble for the limited informal jobs available. The mounting bills and pressure tear families apart or force them to enter into exploitative high-risk employment conditions.

Refugee and asylum-seeker children are particularly vulnerable to bullying at school due to their nationalities, extreme poverty, and different accents and appearances compared to the locals. Bullying may lead to children dropping out of school, depriving them of a fair chance to rebuild their lives. Additionally, some refugee and asylum-seeker parents do not allow their children to play outside for fear of xenophobic attacks. This further isolates the children, hindering their development.

During my time at The Trauma Centre, I spent countless hours in the emergency room at the local hospital with refugee clients who were actively suicidal. I frequently wrote referrals to psychiatrists to assess clients for depression and often sent letters or physically accompanied my clients to various institutions in attempts to secure assistance for them. The sad reality is that there are many refugees and asylum seekers in need and very few resources available to support them.

Since 2020, I have been a researcher at the Institute for Life Course Health Research at Stellenbosch University. A few months ago, I worked on a research project titled “Understanding the Support Available to Refugee Children and Their Families," in partnership with the University of Bath and The Trauma Centre. It was quite disheartening to observe that, despite four years passing since I left the Trauma Centre, refugees and asylum seekers continue to face the same challenges, and in many cases with their plight worsening.

As we celebrate World Refugee Day, we must also ask ourselves the following question: How can we 'promote empathy and understanding' for refugees and asylum seekers in South Africa? One way to assist is by partnering with and donating to organisations such as The Trauma Centre, Scalabrini, and the Adonis Musati Project, which run programmes to support refugees and asylum seekers.

I strongly believe that by working together, we can assist refugees and asylum seekers in rebuilding their lives. For instance, in 2016, I began providing psychosocial support to a client, Ms. X, whose refugee application had been unsuccessful. She was in distress and needed urgent legal assistance. I contacted the Refugee Rights Unit at the University of Cape Town, and they agreed to take on her case. Ms. X met with her assigned lawyer for several sessions to work on her appeal and provide a detailed account of why she had fled her country—something she had been unable to do during her initial refugee application interview due to fear. Within a couple of months, Ms. X's asylum-seeker status was restored. A year later, she was granted refugee status.

As a country that aims to prioritise human rights, ubuntu, and equality, let us strive to create environments and a culture that accept and supports refugees and asylum seekers. We all have a role to play in helping them feel at home in South Africa.

*Yeukai Chideya is affiliated with the Institute for Life Course Health Research in the Department of Global Health at Stellenbosch University. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of SU.