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Home In Depth When refugees have faces and names – affirming our common humanity

When refugees have faces and names – affirming our common humanity

The recent tensions involving refugees camped outside the Unite Nations High Commission of Refugees (UNHCR) in Cape Town and Johannesburg made national headlines, with many news reports describing the refugees’ demands as unrealistic and their behavior as aggressive. Stephan de Beer spoke with many of the refugees in Pretoria and realized that each story was a unique account of the “deep trauma” of people who have suffered years of fear, war, physical and emotional violence, and disregard. The refugee crisis can only be resolved, he says, when we recognize and act upon the humanity of each refugee.

It is safer to engage the refugee issue in South Africa, without facing an individual refugee with a face or a name. Once humanized, we are obliged to respond in a manner befitting of our own humanity[1]. Then, processing refugees as objects of bureaucratic procedure becomes almost impossible.

Replacing proximity: different forms of engagement

Could this be why some government officials, South African neighbours, those supposed to be custodians of refugee rights, and even mediators, create walls of disengagement, replacing proximity to or acknowledgement of individual persons – with names and faces – and their unique stories, with generic narratives that brush every refugee with the same stroke? Does this minimize the obligation to be human? The recent events in Cape Town and Pretoria serve as a case in point.

In recent weeks, the protest by a group of refugees went centre stage in both Cape Town and Pretoria. About 1,500 people in total, these two groups hosted a sit-in at the offices of the United Nations High Commission of Refugees (UNHCR).  

In encountering some of the powerful institutions tasked with dealing with the matter, it became abundantly clear, quickly, that different forms of engagement were practiced. There were top-down forms of engagement, planning the relocation of the refugees without involving them in their own futures. This obviously led to mistrust and a break-down in the possibility to even engage.

In came a motley group of faith-based workers, representing a different form of engagement, from below. Simply sitting on the pavement with people, hearing their stories, prioritizing their names and their faces, established trust, quickly, without much reserve. And 640 stories later, multiple layers of narrative unfolded, disrupting the official story that the public was made to believe.

Simply sitting on the pavement with people, hearing their stories, prioritizing their names and their faces, established trust, quickly, without much reserve.

Jesus modeled it so well. Victims of patriarchal moralities were to be stoned by order of the religious leaders and the Pharisees. In came Jesus, disregarding their pomp and protocol, sitting down by the woman who was to die at their hands, writing in the sand whilst making small talk with her, disarming her and those around her. Until they – the self-appointed custodians of decency – sheepishly walked away[2].

The might of the law, breaking just dignities

The landlord of the property hosting the UNHCR in Cape Town, sought a Court Order to remove the refugees from site. This was granted and implemented by the South African Police Service (SAPS) on 31 October 2019[3]. News reports showed brutal scenes of displacement – children and babies were separated from their mothers, and husbands from their wives. The Central Methodist Church in Cape Town then opened its doors for this displaced group.

Mindful of how wrong things can go, it turned out slightly different in Pretoria. Here, a Court Order was secured by the Brooklyn and Waterkloof Home Owners’ Association. This time, however, before the refugees could be removed, they decided to break through the gates of the UNHCR offices, to continue their sit-in, not on the pavement but now inside the UNHCR compound. This prompted immediate action from the SAPS to remove them on charges of trespassing.

The central aspiration of protesters, as reported by the media, was that the group as a collective desired to be moved to a third country. They would not return to their home countries from which they often fled in the first place because of violence and war, and they felt a deep sense of fear and discomfort to remain in South Africa, based on horrible recent experiences of violence meted out against many of them.

WATCH — Refugees want out // eNCA, YouTube

The reply they mainly got was that the UNHCR does not facilitate group relocations, and also cannot guarantee individual relocations, or facilitate people jumping the queue. Individuals could start the process of applying for relocation to a third country, but how long such a process would take before knowing whether an applications was successful, could not be promised. The protesters were not amenable to this.

The Court Orders acted within the rights of the law, and, indeed, exercised the might of the law. And yet, it did not get to the roots of the matter, simply displacing people from one known spot to many unknown spots. The might of the law broke the possibility of just dignity, and rendered people invisible once more.  

Different kinds of violence

In both Cape Town and Pretoria, the protests were mostly peaceful, until after the Court Orders. In Cape Town, some of the refugees vented their anger and frustration at faith-based leaders during a meeting in Central Methodist Church, even attacking some of those who had come, hoping to help the situation. And in Pretoria, arrest was resisted by throwing stones and other objects at members of the SAPS. Both these cases were reported on widely.

Such violence should not be condoned. And yet, elevating the violence of individual refugees without interrogating the perpetual violence of the state, and the collective violence meted out through xenophobic sentiments verbally and physically expressed on a daily basis, is a willful misrepresentation of the state of affairs.

Violence comes in many forms. The violence of the state is practiced through the slow – even corrupt – actions of some police offers, hospital or clinic staff, and Department of Home Affairs officials treating people contemptibly, as less than human. It is also practiced through the physically violent and traumatizing arrest and displacement of peaceful protesters, and the deliberate separation of families.

It is a case of the mouse against the elephant. Even the neutrality game of those in positions of power and privilege becomes an act of violence, as the elephant’s violations of the mouse are continuously reinforced.  

READ — Pope’s message for 2019 World Day of Migrants and Refugees, 29 September 2019 // Vatican News

In the prophetic – and liberationist – Christian tradition, there is always a deliberate option to stand with the poor, the oppressed, the victim, the mouse. This option is to affirm the dignity of those most vulnerable; to stand in listening solidarity with those who go unheard; to give voice to stories still untold.  

Deep trauma: layers of stories

One of the discourses in recent weeks, in reference to the refugee protests, was that some of the leaders of the protest might not be credible. Some were cited as having protection orders against them, and a recurring narrative suggested that women and children were kept on the streets against their will.

This dominant narrative, that was also used to placate church leaders and others who wanted to lend a hand, was deeply challenged by the multiple narratives shared by those who found themselves in the protest. Even if it was to be the case that some of the leaders were not credible, this does not take away from the depth of woundedness that stared one in the face.

Field workers from local faith communities and researchers at the University of Pretoria, interviewed 640 people camped out in front of the UNHCR over a 3-day period. This, after being told that it was dangerous to engage them; or that there would be no trust.

In story after story, listening to refugee women and men, heart-wrenching tales were told that could only be summarized as deep trauma. The desperate measure of staying on the streets for weeks, in the hope that you will be seen or heard, was – from one angle – the desperate cry of deeply wounded people. Firstly, none of the respondents indicated, even subtly, that they were kept against their will. Secondly, only 20 of the 640 respondents mentioned relocation. The recurrent cry was for safety and protection.

In story after story, listening to refugee women and men, heart-wrenching tales were told that could only be summarized as deep trauma.

The interviews revealed stories of brutal violence, cold and heartless government officials, and xenophobic neighbours, meting out the worst indignities possible, to fellow African sisters and brothers – a young, disabled man was separated from his parents during xenophobic violence in October; a young Congolese woman lost her hair salon, which was burnt down by her South African neighbours; physical and emotional abuse meted out by officials from the Department of Home Affairs, the refusal of services, incorrect documentation, or requests for bribes in exchange for assistance; a baby burnt in a xenophobic attack; and babies and older children refused medical care at public health clinics, because their documentation was wrong.

One of the pastors, after hearing 50 such stories, could listen no longer. These stories invited new kinds of solidarity, disrupting any possible complacency or self-righteous dismissal. The stories invited fellow human beings into shared and vulnerable humanity.

If the stories that were told were single occurrences, happening once, or twice, it could still be bearable. But if such treatment was a daily occurrence, sometimes for many years on end, after having already fled your home country and the atrocities you had to face there; and your children become teenagers with no prospect of stability, and political leaders announce from public platforms that foreigners had to be deported, you have nothing to lose. Then, to stay on the streets for a few weeks, in an effort to be heard; or deciding to walk 800 kilometres as a group to Namibia to escape the inhospitalities of South Africa; or, finding the internalized violence erupting in outward acts of aggression when yet another person in a suit or collar tells you what is not possible, is not only understandable, but a logical consequence of lived trauma. 

READ — Fewer than 1 in 6 asylum seekers in SA granted refugee status // News24

Archbishop Thabo Makgoba, who was actually caught in the chaos of some refugees attacking faith leaders in Cape Town, was quoted as pleading for “sympathy and understanding”. Makgoba said: “when I put on my psychology hat… we are dealing with a human issue here, a desperate situation”[4].

Like a festering wound: when society fails

It is like a festering wound. The question is just: ‘How desperate is it really?’. The 1,500 protesters in Cape Town and Pretoria, are only a handful compared to the larger number of more 260,000 refugees and asylum-seekers in South Africa. Many of them have already waited for 10 to 15 years for their legal status to be properly processed.

It is an open secret that the asylum office in Pretoria is corrupt to the bone. Here, refugees or asylum-seekers have to pay bribes, or jump the wall, if they want to find a space in the queue. Refusing to do so might mean waiting for another year, or two. Backlogs in processing applications through the Department of Home Affairs keep on growing, but the political will to clean up this act with bold leadership, does not seem to exist.

It is an open secret that the asylum office in Pretoria is corrupt to the bone.

In spite of this, the official line of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, is to convince us that South Africa has one of the most progressive refugee regimes in the world.

Lofty policy documents are a far cry from the daily practices that deny refugees and asylum-seekers dignity, access to appropriate services and justice in many forms. No single housing policy in South Africa caters for refugees and asylum-seekers. In securing shelter, refugees have to fend for themselves, often landing up in overcrowded inner city buildings, renting from scrupulous landlords.

What is to be done?

Firstly, we have to be honest with ourselves and our failures as a nation. Instead of getting stuck on how progressive our policies are, we have to collaborate in uncovering where we deeply fail, in order for us to excel at what we do.  

Secondly, we have to reclaim our common humanity, and acknowledge our common vulnerability. This we can only do when we are prepared to see the face of the other – black and white, women and men, adults and children, homeless and housed, refugees and South Africans – and allow such encounters to transform us.  

READ — 2019 will be another year of crises // Norwegian Refugee Council

Thirdly, we have to engage in a concerted campaign to insist on the total overhaul of the Department of Home Affairs in relation to how it treats refugees and asylum-seekers, and how its systems failed – also having dire consequences for South African citizens. This is a matter of dignity and justice, for all.

Fourthly, we have to ensure that housing policy makes room for refugees and asylum-seekers, in order to enable concrete integration and prevent abusive housing conditions. This would require the utmost innovation, as we already cannot cope with the housing demand just of South Africans.  

Fifthly, we have to applaud the piece on refugees that is to be found in – of all places – the Technology Handbook of Grade 7 learners in public schools. Perhaps this could be enhanced by inviting someone who is a refugee, to teach that class. Or, by actually getting learners to prepare the meal for a 100 refugees, which is the exercise in their school books. Imagine if this could happen in every classroom in South Africa – the message of our common humanity might spread like a veld fire, starting with Grade 7’s. 

Imagine if this could happen in every classroom in South Africa – the message of our common humanity might spread like a veld fire, starting with Grade 7’s. 

Sixthly, we need a revolution of service! This became the cry of some who got their hands dirty in the aftermath of the xenophobic attacks in Pretoria in October of 2019, and now again in Waterkloof Street. Instead of toxic entitlement, we need acts of bold generosity; instead of greedy self-indulgence, we need to embrace the hurting other. Instead of abusive power, people need tender care. Serving is messy, as it can be abused. But Jesus came to serve, not to be served. Those who seek to go after him, do not have many options.

Finally, it has to start with me: in every encounter, calling out the tiniest seeds of xenophobic prejudice; at every opportunity, sharing the stories of people we came to know, who are no longer nameless or faceless, but human beings, friends, sisters, brothers, image-bearers of God. It has to start with me, being open to discover Christ, hidden in the face of every stranger. For in as far as I displace the refugee in my midst, I displace God.

[1] Cf. Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity, p.207

[2] Cf. John 8:1-11

[3] Cf. Unathi Kanjeni, Video of police forcefully taking baby from mother in Cape Town goes viral, TimesLive, 31 October 2019

[4] Kgaugelo Masweneng, Archbishop Thabo Makgoba attacked in refugee chaos at church in Cape Town, TimesLive, 15 November 2019

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.


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Stephan de Beer
Stephan de Beer is an urban theologian focusing on issues of faith in the city, and, more specifically, concerns himself with homelessness, housing and spatial justice. He directs the Centre for Contextual Ministry at the University of Pretoria and is Associate Professor in Practical Theology at the University of Pretoria. Before joining the University, he worked in an ecumenical faith-based organisation in the inner city of Pretoria, creating social and housing infrastructure in response to, and in partnership with, some of the city's most vulnerable communities (for other publications, see ccmresearch.org.za).

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