Amanuel Isak Tewolde, Daily Maverik, March 3, 2020
In the past, when xenophobic violence broke out, the Office of International Relations and Co-operation met with ambassadors to discuss xenophobia and how to resolve the issue. The ambassadors were assumed to represent non-South African communities residing in the country. But hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers and refugees fled persecution from nations of which some of the ambassadors are representatives. Ambassadors in South Africa can only represent individuals who reside in the country as non-refugees.
Without the need to involve foreign ambassadors, therefore, it is the host country that should take responsibility for the protection of refugees, asylum seekers who arrive in South Africa to seek refuge in the South African state.
In March 2019, then Minister of International Relations and Co-operation Lindiwe Sisulu called an urgent meeting with African ambassadors over xenophobic attacks in Durban. The aim of the meeting was “on how ambassadors and government can work with communities and all stakeholders to support and encourage integration in communities”.
Even though the intention of convening predominantly ambassadors was noble, the fact remained that a majority of the victims of xenophobic violence were African asylum seekers and refugees. By claiming asylum in South Africa, African refugees effectively sever ties with the governments of their home countries and their ambassadorial representatives in the country. This means, in principle, it is the exclusive responsibility of the refugees’ host nation (South Africa) to find ways of addressing xenophobia in South Africa.
In September 2019, when xenophobic violence erupted in Pretoria, International Relations and Co-operation Minister Dr Naledi Pandor called a meeting with African ambassadors to discuss xenophobia in South Africa. In the meeting, the minister said, “[w]e had discussions on the recent events against foreign nationals in South Africa both to reassure them that government is taking all the measures it can in order to ensure that we return stability and calm to our country”.
To be specific, the xenophobic violence was not exclusively directed against “foreign nationals” who reside in South Africa as economic migrants or immigrants, but also against African asylum seekers and refugees who should be protected by the South African host government rather than by “their” embassies, which do not represent them.
It is therefore imperative for the South African government to take sole responsibility in ensuring the safety of vulnerable asylum seekers and refugees during violence that targets non-South Africans in the country.
The government of South Africa cannot discuss the safety of refugees in South Africa with ambassadors, as this would effectively contradict the principle of the asylum system. Furthermore, asylum seekers and refugees should not be classified under the ambiguous and misleading term of “foreign nationals” because doing so only masks their status as vulnerable minorities who should be protected by the host government.