News & events


26 June 2019

Hostile environments faced by refugees: climate change, migrant myths and policy in South Africa

Andrea Teagle

The number of displaced people worldwide is at a record high of over 70 million people, according to the most recent UNHCR (UN Refugee Agency) data. Over a third (25.9 million) of those are refugees – people fleeing life threatening situations. In the wake of World Refugee day (25 June), our thoughts turn to the estimated 280,027* people whose lives are on hold as they seek asylum in South Africa.

The number of people fleeing their homes globally and in Southern Africa is projected to continue to rise, driven increasingly by the effects of climate change.

By 2050, an estimated 150 to 200 million people will be displaced due to extreme weather conditions, drought and rising sea levels, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). Climate change also exacerbates conflict through resource scarcity and internal displacement.

“While there is a general consensus that global warming impacts us all, the role it will play in future human migration is often underestimated,” writes Maram Ahmed for the World Economic Forum.

Developing countries, including South Africa and our southern African neighbours, are disproportionately affected by climate change, both due to geography and to low response capacity. Of the world’s 20 most climate-vulnerable countries, known as the v20, six are in Africa. In inland South Africa, temperatures are projected to increase at twice the global average, according to the IPPC special report. A recent Climate and Migration Coalition investigation indicates that internal displacement, particularly of black, low-income South Africans, is already happening.

To mitigate global warming, commitments must be undertaken on a global scale, as the Paris Agreement – and the outcry over the planned withdrawal of the USA – has underscored. Similarly, a response to climate change that protects those most vulnerable (and least responsible) will require regional cooperation and recognition of the necessary movement of populations. Yet, the treatment of refugees in South Africa, mostly from SADC (Southern African Development Community) countries, indicates that we are long way from acknowledging a shared responsibility towards people displaced by factors beyond their control. As is often pointed out, this is despite the integral role that SADC countries played in hosting South African exiles during the Apartheid years.

Challenges faced by refugees in South Africa

Although the rights of all persons are protected by the South African Constitution, the reality for migrants, and particularly refugees, in South Africa is very different. It is notoriously difficult to gain refugee status in South Africa. According to Doctors Without Borders (MSF), the Department of Home Affairs is highly dysfunctional in its processing of visa and asylum applications.

“The department reports that 96% of asylum applicants are rejected on first instance, meaning only one out of 20 people who has sought refuge in SA are officially recognized.”

Refugees and undocumented migrants seeking life-saving care are also frequently turned away from hospitals, despite the fact that the Constitution clearly provides that everyone – not only citizens and documented migrants – has the right to healthcare. Foreigners are also routinely subject to discrimination and sometimes xenophobic violence.

Myths about migrants

HSRC research led by Dr Steven Gordon finds that 3 out of 4 South African adults agree that immigrants increase crime rates, steal jobs and spread disease. Unsurprisingly, such beliefs are linked to unwelcoming attitudes towards foreigners. Data from the 2014 South African Social Attitudes Survey found that intolerance is widespread and, contrary to popular belief, cuts across the socio-economic spectrum.

Exploring the origin and perpetuation of negative myths about migrants, and subsequent attitude formation, is the topic of ongoing HSRC research. 

Some of the negative narratives have a long history. As South Africa’s recently released National Action Plan to combat various forms of discrimination, including xenophobia, states, “The many years of a racist and isolationist policy of apartheid have planted seeds of xenophobia, particularly towards Africans, undoing centuries of brotherhood and sisterhood among Africans in South Africa and those from other parts of the continent.”

Xenophobic comments by politicians looking to score cheap points ahead of elections, together with fragmented, paradoxical policy regarding migrants, perpetuate false beliefs about the economic impact of migrants.

A 2018 World Bank study, using data from 1996-2011, found that, contrary to beliefs, migrants have a positive impact on employment in South Africa, with each migrant generating two jobs, on average.

Click here to explore displaced people worldwide.

*This estimate comes from the UNHCR. However, data on refugees and foreign nationals is sketchy, and estimates are hotly contested as inflated figures may fuel anti-migrant sentiment.

Andrea Teagle

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