World Refugee Day is an important expression of our collective solidarity with the 65 million people around the world who have been forced to leave their homes due to war, persecution and violence.
As we stand #WithRefugees, we must reflect on the enormous disruption and difficulty faced by refugees and displaced persons, and highlight the need to assist them by providing a safe place, and welcoming them into our communities, our schools, and our workplaces.
We thank South Africans for the generosity they have demonstrated over the years as they hosted over 126 000 refugees recorded since 2009, and many more asylum seekers.
This affirms not only our continued gratitude to peoples of the world, particularly those of Africa, who hosted fellow South Africans as refugees during the apartheid-colonial era, often at great cost to their own lives, but it also affirms our continued conviction in the principled of human and African solidarity.
We re-affirm the bold and visionary words of our struggle hero, Steve Biko, who prophesised even as the darkest cloud of racial tyranny enveloped our country, that,
“We have set out on a quest for true humanity, and somewhere on the distant horizon we can see the glittering prize. Let us march forth with courage and determination, drawing strength from our common plight and our brotherhood. In time we shall be in a position to bestow upon South Africa the greatest gift possible – a more human face.”
We were privileged as a people to have out of our own loins the type of leadership that could see vividly the enormous potential of our struggle, the glittering prize, and could out most eloquently and in the principled fashion the future of our country that we were fighting for, and challenge us amidst the travails of the moment to seek a more human society than the one imposed on us by racial tyranny, which had forced our people to be beggars in their own country and refugees in their own motherland, Africa!
Addressing the Organisation of African Unity in 1994, for the first time as the newly-elected President of the liberated South Africa, having thanked the OAU leaders for their contribution and role to this titanic effort, President Nelson Mandela said,
“Africa shed her blood and surrendered the lives of her children so that all her children could be free. She gave of her limited wealth and resources so that all of Africa should be liberated. She opened heart of hospitality and her head so full of wise counsel, so that we should emerge victorious. A million times, she put her hand to the plough that has now dug up the encrusted burden of oppression accumulated for centuries.”
He then went on to say,
“The total liberation of Africa from foreign and white minority rule has now been achieved… Finally, at this summit meeting in Tunis, we shall remove from our agenda the consideration of the question of Apartheid South Africa. Where South Africa appears on the agenda again, let it be because we want to discuss what its contribution shall be to the making of the new African renaissance. Let it be because we want to discuss what materials it will supply for the rebuilding of the African city of Carthage.”
Today, yet again for the 24th time since the liberation of our country, we stand here at this historic site at Constitution Hill to re-affirm the correctness of President Mandela’s injunctions that South Africa is indeed part of a broader titanic African effort to give new birth to our continent.
Our contribution to the protection of refuges is not merely borne out of gratitude for humankind’s efforts to help free our country, but it is borne out more deeply of our humaneness and our conviction in the ethos of human rights and human freedoms.
Through this, and our other efforts to bring about peace and restore the political and economic stability of our continent, we are providing the materials Madiba spoke about that rebuild the African continent and ensure that we bestow to our country, as Biko enjoined us, ” the greatest gift possible – a more human face.”
We know that in some instances we are found wanting, incapable of fulfilling our own best intentions because of lack of capacity and sometimes inadequate policy responses.
But we do our best under the circumstances, and our efforts thus far to host and provide protection to refugees has demonstrated our sincerest political will.
This has made our country over the years to become one of the largest host countries for refugees worldwide.
Our contribution is understandable; after all, it is developing countries who host the majority of the world’s refugees.
On this day, we need to redouble our efforts to develop a positive approach to refugee protection globally.
Such an approach needs to respond to displacement with legal channels of migration, rather than fear-based, fragmented and draconian responses which have consigned asylum seekers to further hardship and appalling conditions in many cases.
Since the last World Refugee Day, Africa and the world was horrified to learn about African migrants in Libya being auctioned into slavery.
This was a direct consequence of an ill-advised plan by European countries to rely on Libya, a fragile state, to detain and repatriate migrants to prevent them from crossing the Mediterranean.
Thousands of migrants and refugees die every year while seeking safety, crossing the Sahara desert and the Mediterranean Sea.
It is therefore encouraging that the European Union has since engaged with the African Union on more humane responses to refugee and migrant flows.
It further highlights the need to forge a global response to refugee protection, building on the New York Declaration.
For this response to be successful, developed countries must take an appropriate share of the global responsibility for refugee protection.
Hardening official attitudes to refugees by governments, and in the political discourse, of several wealthy countries in the global North should concern us all.
We need global leadership and vision based on our common humanity, respect for international obligations, and the desire to create a better world.
Even as we must work hard to uphold refugee protection internationally and at home, the long-term solution must include work to address the issues which displace people in the first instance.
Africa hosts the largest number of displaced persons worldwide.
According to UNHCR, in 2017 Africa had more than 24 million people displaced because of conflict, persecution, human rights abuses and food insecurity.
The solutions therefore must be found in inclusive development, consolidation of democracy, conflict prevention and resolution, and efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change.
On our continent, areas of the greatest concern to UNHCR in terms of the number of refugees include South Sudan, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic, and Burundi, among others.
We are encouraged by the leadership role the African Union has taken on peace, security and democratic governance issues in these countries.
South Africa has always supported these efforts and will continue to do so.
We must fully embrace the Pan-African mission articulated in Agenda 2063, to build: “an integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa, driven by its own citizens and representing a dynamic force in the international arena.”
We must act on Agenda 2063’s call to silence the guns by 2020, ending all conflicts on the continent through dialogue-centred conflict prevention and resolution.
The displacement of tens of millions of Africans causes enormous human suffering, and social and economic disruption, particularly to women and children.
South Africa remains committed to protecting refugees and strengthening our institutional arrangements in this regard.
Accordingly, we are in the process of updating our policies and regulations with regard to international migration and refugees.
We intend further to strengthen our capacity to speedily process asylum claims through various interventions which are complemented by our new international migration policy which seeks to address the challenges occasioned by the large number of economic migrants who abuse the asylum seeker process to regularize their stay in South Africa.
We have been clear over the years that South Africa does not have a refugee problem.
We host a manageable number of refugees, who reside in safety here in South Africa.
Rather, we have a problem of irregular migration.
In recent years, spurious asylum applications by economic migrants overwhelmed our system, resulting in inordinately long wait times for decisions for applicants.
This made it extremely difficult to identify and respond to the needs of genuine refugees.
Our new international migration policy presents a new approach to better manage irregular and economic migration, through regularisation of existing migrants already residing in South Africa, and creating new visa options for citizens of neighbouring countries to reside in South Africa legally.
It is hoped that these improvements will reduce the number of unfounded applications particularly by economic migrants and improve speedy adjudication of asylum claims.
Other developments include our use of technology to manage the asylum system.
The Desmond Tutu Refugee Reception Office in Pretoria was once notorious for long wait times, client frustration and chaotic crowds, which were a breeding ground for corruption and other exploitation.
Now, the implementation of an automated booking system with self-extension capability has completely transformed the office and alleviated huge frustration for asylum seekers.
These innovations are being rolled out to other refugee reception offices such as Musina, Cape Town and Port Elizabeth.
A new Port Elizabeth RRO will be opened in October 2018.
The old Port Elizabeth RRO continues to serve existing clients.
The new office will provide adequate accommodation with which to extend better services to persons with legitimate claims.
It has a streamlined process flow, as wells as open spaces, baby-changing stations and multiple ablution facilities.
Provision has also been made to accommodate the Standing Committee for Refugee Affairs and Appeal Board hearings.
In November we launched a new travel document for refugees, with improved security features, which is compliant with International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and UNHCR standards.
On this day, we extend our solidarity to the Palestinian refugees and internally-displaced people who continue to face extraordinary and inhumane persecution, robbed of their birth-right to freedom and subjected to gross inhumanity.
We, the people of South Africa, know only too well the injustice to which we were subjected by the crime of apartheid, and are consequently duty bound to stand with the Palestinian people in their just struggle for freedom, statehood, peaceful existence and coexistence with their neighbours, including the people of Israel, and for a return to their motherland.
World Refugee Day is an important expression of solidarity with the tens of millions of people worldwide, who have been forced to flee their homes because of war, persecution and violence.
The international community of nations must come together to forge a positive, coordinated response to the challenge of refugees.
Wealthy countries must do more to assist with refugee resettlement.
Importantly, we must deal with the root causes of displacement: conflict, insecurity, and underdevelopment.
As a continent, we must redouble our efforts to work together to advance inclusive development, consolidation of democracy, peace building and conflict resolution efforts.
South Africa remains committed to refugee protection, and will continue to improve our institutional arrangements to identify and provide assistance to refugees.
I thank you.