UNHCR supports efforts to counter xenophobia in South Africa

News Stories, 30 April 2009

© UNHCR/P.Rulashe
UNHCR and human rights organizations undertake community outreach initiatives to address xenophobia in South Africa.

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa, April 30 (UNHCR) Haunted by a wave of xenophobic violence that forced tens of thousands of people to flee their homes in South Africa last year, the UN refugee agency is supporting efforts to combat the scourge.

Tension between South Africans and foreigners mainly Africans, and including refugees and asylum seekers had been simmering in deprived city areas before erupting into violence in May last year, causing some 45,000 people to flee their homes and leaving 62 people dead, according to government figures.

The situation has calmed down considerably since then, but fears remain of fresh violence amid the continuing economic depression. The government and independent humanitarian organizations, such as the Nelson Mandela Foundation (NMF), are doing all they can to ease tension, eradicate xenophobia and move the country forward.

The NMF promotes the principles of its founder and namesake, South Africa's first black president and a champion of reconciliation and non-violence. The 90-year-old Mandela has retired from the helm, but his foundation continues to promote and facilitate dialogue.

Its focus this year is on xenophobia and the organization has launched up a two-year strategy to help promote peaceful co-existence between South Africans and foreigners and to look at the root causes of last year's violence.

The NMF has invited UNHCR, which has long opposed xenophobic behaviour in South Africa, to sit on its steering committee and help implement the plan.

UNHCR will also provide financial and technical support. The Foundation has also consulted with government institutions and other human rights organizations.

Achmat Dangor, chief executive of the Foundation, set the tone for the anti-xenophobia campaign when he addressed a recent NFM meeting on the issue with partners. "Individuals of Mandela's stature did not change the world on their own. Mandela's entire life has been based upon dialogue, the art of listening to others and getting others to listen and speak to each other."

South Africa has been too slow in the past to use dialogue to tackle xenophobia, but NMF hopes to help redress the situation by facilitating and encouraging meaningful conversations between all relevant stakeholders.

Under its two-year programme, the NMF will promote social cohesion by arranging meetings in a safe place where people living in mixed nationality communities can come together to discuss the challenges they face while at the same time looking for sustainable solutions.

The NMF will facilitate 30 such dialogues in five provinces, targeting areas worst affected by xenophobia, such as Alexandra Township in Johannesburg and Langa Township in Cape Town.

"Initiatives of this nature are to be welcomed," said UNHCR Regional Representative Sanda Kimbimbi. "We will certainly play our part to ensure that the NMF and other credible institutions achieve our collective goal of combatting xenophobic tendencies."

By Pumla Rulashe
In Johannesburg, South Africa

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South Africa's Invisible People

In March 2011, UNHCR initiated a project with the South African non-governmental organization, Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR), to tackle the issue of statelessness. The specific goals of the project were to provide direct legal services to stateless people and those at risk of statelessness; to engage government on the need for legal reform to prevent and reduce statelessness; to raise awareness about stateless people and their rights; and to advocate for the ratification of the 1954 and 1961 UN conventions on statelessness.

LHR had conceived the project a year earlier after noticing that large numbers of Zimbabwean-born asylum-seekers were telling its staff that they faced problems getting jobs, studying or setting up businesses - all allowed under South African law. They told LHR that when they applied for Zimbabwean passports, necessary to access these rights, they were informed by consular officials that they were no longer recognized as Zimbabwean citizens. This effectively made them stateless.

Since the project's inception, LHR has reached more than 2,000 people who are stateless or at risk of statelessness. These people came from more than 20 different countries. It has identified numerous categories of concern in South Africa, both migrants and those born in the country.

The following photo set portrays some of the people who have been, or are being, helped by the project. The portraits were taken by photographer Daniel Boshoff. Some of the subjects asked that their names be changed.

South Africa's Invisible People

Nansen Award presentation for the late Senator Edward Kennedy

UNHCR's annual Nansen Refugee Award was posthumously awarded to Senator Edward Kennedy at a ceremony in Washington DC on October 29 for his life-long commitment to refugee rights. Kennedy's wife, Victoria, accepted the award on behalf of her late husband. In presenting the award, UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres, praised the "vision and commitment" of Senator Kennedy in his support for the displaced.

The prize money of US$100,000 will be donated to the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate, where it will be used to train the next generation of leaders dedicated to the cause of refugee advocacy. The Nansen Award is given to an individual or organization for outstanding work on behalf of refugees. It was created in 1954 in honour of Fridtjof Nansen, Norwegian polar explorer, scientist and the first global High Commissioner for Refugees.

Nansen Award presentation for the late Senator Edward Kennedy

Statelessness and Women

Statelessness can arise when citizenship laws do not treat men and women equally. Statelessness bars people from rights that most people take for granted such as getting a job, buying a house, travelling, opening a bank account, getting an education, accessing health care. It can even lead to detention.

In some countries, nationality laws do not allow mothers to confer nationality to their children on an equal basis as fathers and this creates the risk that these children will be left stateless. In others, women cannot acquire, change or retain their nationality on an equal basis as men. More than 40 countries still discriminate against women with respect to these elements.

Fortunately, there is a growing trend for states to remedy gender discrimination in their nationality laws, as a result of developments in international human rights law and helped by vigorous advocacy from women's rights groups. The women and children depicted here have faced problems over nationality.

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