By the end of 2016, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), UN Refugee Agency, reported that under-developed nations hosted 84% of the world refugees under UNHCR’s mandate. As for Africa the report shows that in 2016 Africa hosted 5,531,693 refugees. The latest Global Trends report on refugees shows that Uganda hosts the greatest number of refugees on the continent, 940 835; the second is Ethiopia, 791 631; and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is the third 451 956. According to government statistics, South Africa (SA) hosts 268 000 refugees and asylum seekers, mainly from Somalia, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe and the DRC. Since SA’s transition to democracy, the influx into the country of asylum-seekers from across Africa has increased almost tenfold. In 2011 the UNHCR reported that SA was the largest recipient of individual applications for asylum in the world, with more than 207 000 applications out of a total of 839 000 globally.  Looking at the number of refugees in SA, and its current socio-economic outlook, there is a need for the SA government to be honest.

Dozens of people camp in a corridor close to the offices of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in Cape Town, demanding to be removed from South Africa saying they were no longer safe. (Rodger Bosch, AFP)

As far as refugees are concerned, SA has developed legal framework and policies that have position it as among the most progressive countries on refugees matters. Unlike many other African countries, where the UNHCR takes the leading role in the absence of a national framework to meet obligations to protect refugees, in those countries, refugees are primarily and unambiguously UNHCR’s responsibly. Some of those countries are Uganda, Ethiopia and DRC, they have refugee camps that are managed by UNHCR in partnership with other NGOs. Motivated by SA’s exceptionalism, the belief SA was destined for exceptional practices and achievements, the South African government has continuously claimed that, it has enough legal framework, and capacity to manage its own refugee and asylum system.

As far as refugees are concerned, SA’s progressivity is mostly explained by its ability to develop refugee act, and draw the rights of refugees from its Constitution, supreme law of the land. It uses section 24(3)(a) of the Refugees Act 1998 (Act 130 of 1998) in recognizing a refugee. Concerning refugees ‘rights, SA is still an exception to other countries, the South African formal recognition of refugee status stipulates that a refugee in SA is ENTLITLED to socio-economic rights as provided for in Chapter 2 of the South African Constitution including work and study. The theoretical interpreting of the above legislation portraits that SA is capable to satisfy both refugees and South African citizens’ need. In practical it may looks otherwise!

In analyzing recent development in Cape Town, since last week, hundreds of refugees from across Africa have occupied Waldorf Arcade, in Cape Town’s CBD, where the UNHCR is based. Among other things, they argue that their rights to protection are being ignored by the South African government and because of that they no longer want to discuss the issue with policy makers. They insist that the government has failed them by not supporting them, thus they want the UNHCR to intervene. They are begging the UN’s Refugee Agency to relocate them to a safer place. Outside SA, may be in Western countries…

Referring to refugees’ frustrations as reported by media, and confusing statements of Street-Level Bureaucrats (SLBs), it can be argued that  South African government may be struggling to materialized the spirit of Chapter 2 of its Constitution, and may not have enough capacity to respond to the socio-economic needs of both refugees and the majority of South African citizens at grass root level where most refugees live. It may also be correct to maintain that SLBs may not have ability to implement and translate legal frameworks and policies that deal with refugees related issues. With no need to exaggerate it can be supposed that certain SA’s policies and legal frameworks on refugees may be nightmare in practical at grass root level where the suffering of the majority is necked exposed.

In his book titled “Street-Level Bureaucracy: Dilemmas of the Individual in Public Services,” a classic work that describes what the street-level bureaucrats (SLBs) in charge of delivering public services actually do in terms of policy implementation and how their actions differ from the policy pronouncements of central-level planners.  Michael Lipsky defines SLBs as the frontline workers or policy implementers in government

agencies such as the health service, schools or police service. In their research titled “Going the Extra Mile? How Street-level Bureaucrats Deal with the Integration of Immigrants,” Warda Belabas and Lasse Gerrits are convinced that the typical SLBs are nurses, doctors, policemen and teachers because they are regularly and directly interacting with citizens and immigrants, or the recipients of government services. Some of refugee’s frustrations are said to be derived from the SLBs. At the same time the incapacity to deliver services to both refugees and citizens are also perceived in the work of SLBs.

Nevertheless, despite the achievements of the democratic government and refugees’ challenges, South Africa is also facing what was termed triple challenge: Poverty, inequality, and unemployment. Seen as competing with some South Africans for job seekers, most of refugees are often the first to come under fire when SA’s triple challenge metamorphosed into subjective interpretations that can be judged xenophobic. Due to the facts that de jure refugees can compete with South African on almost everything, except voting, political offices and in the state security cluster.  De facto, it may not be the case in many circumstances. Using the de jure and de facto contexts at the grass root level, it looks more than safer to suggest that there is a need for a critical question to be asked.

Refugees in SA, who’s Responsibility?

This question may at least allow both refugees, South African people at the grass root, and SLBs to understand where the South African government’s responsibility on refugees starts and end, de jure and de facto. This assumption is explained by the fact that behind some of the refugee’s frustrations and SLBs‘self-contradictory assertions and frustrations, there are narratives that misguide the grass roots. Narrative that can only be corrected once the answer(s) to the above question is(re) provided in a very objective manner with a clear explanation on who supposed to take the responsibility of refugees, de jure and de facto.

In an attempt to respond to refugees demands and touch the reality in the terrain, the UN Higher Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi had to come to SA. He just concluded a two-day visit on Tuesday the 15th of October. He met President Cyril Ramaphosa, Home Affairs Minister Pakishe Aaron Motsoaledi and other senior Government representatives with whom he discussed the issues of refugees and asylum-seekers. From the conclusion of the discussion as it was reported by media, it looks like refugees are here to stay! But the answer to the question: Refugees in SA, Who’s Responsibility? Is not presents in the briefing.

The Higher Commissioner concluded the visit by arguing that “South Africa’s progressive laws and policies have provided a safe haven to many vulnerable people in need of protection and support.” He argued that SA government and UNHCR will continue to work together with the aim of ameliorating the living conditions of refugees. Reading the declaration, it looks like all refugees’ frustrations and demands did not get a clear answer or sustainable strategy to respond to them. The frustration of SLBs regarding hospital, schools… capacity were not addressed!

The intention of this peace was to raise the question: Refugees in South Africa: Who’s Responsibility? It should therefore be a zero surprise if it did not respond what it calls a critical question.  However, if in the process of developing the argument through the underlining logic of this peace it did perhaps respond to the question, then the answer may not necessarily intentionally! However it is only convinced that any subjective answer to the question in question should have to take into consideration the framework used by SA government in certifying a refugee and determining his/her rights, investigate the SLBs’ frustration on issues of service delivery to both refugees and South African people at grass root level.

Refugees in South Africa: Who’s Responsibility?


Feruzi Ngwamba Foze