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Migrants and refugees make a significant contribution

15 February 2019


Migration is a global phenomenon, which continues to grow daily. There are 244-million international migrants, 3.3% of the global population, according to the International Organisation for Migration’s World Migration Report 2018.
A number of push-and-pull factors cause people to move — voluntarily or involuntarily — between countries. Some of these include natural disasters, political unrest, conflicts, poverty, human rights violations, limited opportunities and little safety.

Migrants and refugees have been identified as a vulnerable group because, in most cases, they are forced to flee the country of their birth to seek a better life.

All too often, they are never truly integrated into the country of destination. They face rigid policies and laws that make it difficult for them to regularise their stay, find a job or get educated. This, in turn, affects the quality of their lives and the contribution they make to society.
Migrants and refugees also face gross discrimination from the communities they settle in and this has led to physical and verbal abuse, violation of rights, loss of livelihood and, in extreme cases, loss of life.

Since the end of apartheid, South Africa has been regarded as a popular migration destination, mainly by citizens of neighbouring countries. To ensure the rights of this vulnerable group, the government put in place several laws and policies.
The Refugees Act (1998) is one of the laws that was enacted. It gives effect to the relevant international legal instruments, principles and standards relating to refugees and provides for the reception and rights of asylum seekers.

Despite these legal instruments, the lived realities of migrants and refugees in South Africa are fraught with discrimination, draconian laws, xenophobia and violation of their fundamental human rights. In an effort to bridge the gap between the laws and the lived realities of these groups, the government has taken a number of initiatives, such as dialogues and award ceremonies.
But social inclusion — which the laws of the country sought to build — has not yet been achieved. There is a general perception that migrants and refugees compete with South Africans for jobs, are not trustworthy and are responsible for social ills, especially crime. Social cohesion is further hindered by political and traditional leaders who make unfounded statements on the matter.

Yet the contribution by migrants and refugees to their adopted country cannot be overstated. In 2015, the African Centre for Cities and its partners initiated a large-scale research project to examine the role of migrant and refugee entrepreneurs in the informal economy in South Africa.
The findings showed that these entrepreneurs service the needs of poorer consumers, make goods available at convenient times and places, introduce new products and create business activities and job opportunities.

During a meeting about the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (Global Compact on Migration) António Guterres, the secretary general of the United Nations, said that “migration is a positive global phenomenon. It powers economic growth, reduces inequalities, connects diverse societies and helps us ride the demographic waves of population growth and decline.”
The Global Compact on Migration is a nonbinding agreement that was officially adopted by the UN General Assembly. It includes contributions from state governments — South Africa made an extensive contribution — civil society and migrants

It seeks to advance the understanding of migration, address problems associated with migration and strengthen the contribution of migrants and migration to sustainable development.
The compact recognises that migrants and refugees are entitled to fundamental freedoms, which must be respected, protected and fulfilled at all times.

The compact also aims to mitigate the adverse drivers and structural factors that hinder people from building and maintaining sustainable livelihoods in their countries of origin, and so compel them to seek a future elsewhere.
The grim images of thousands of people from Africa perishing in the Mediterranean Sea while seeking refuge and a better life in Europe and Asia reveal a tragedy we must all work together to end.

It is hoped that the Global Compact on Migration will lead to global cohesion and that migrants and refugees are truly accepted in the countries of their destination.

Angie Makwetla is a commissioner and Omolara Akintoye-Asuni is her research adviser at the South African Human Rights Commission

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