The plight of the refugee

The plight of the refugee

Cape Town is a beautiful city, born before Vasco Da Gama, Ferdinand Magellan, Jan Van Riebeck and all those other European sailors and explorers that named it the Cape of Good Hope. A land of the Khoi and the San clans that lived along the southernmost coast of the continent of Africa, it provided repose after long and tempestuous journeys on the seas of the East India Route.
It was in the cape that they could find a moment of rest, it was here that they could eat fresh fruit and meat bought (or to rightly say bartered for trinkets) from the locals. The city soon became a halfway station and in 1662 was annexed by Van Riebeck and became a Dutch colony.

The local population was pushed into the hinterlands and forced to leave what was once the land of their forefathers, the Strandlopers, for the new colonists that saw them only as a labour and entertainment reserve (remember Saartjie Baartman).

The status of South Africa as a safe haven never changed and it remains so to the present day for the locals and the throngs of refugees driven from their lands across Africa by the hunger and the poverty, the war and the disease or personal choice to relocate to a location that is in the mind of many an African citizen a land of promise.
The plight of the African refugee however presents itself to be a malaise that just won’t go away as I watch the crowd of refugees from the entrance of the hotel I am accommodated at in Greenmarket Square Gardens.

Banal and lacklustre struggles of the refugee populations in South Africa have been accounted for quite some time now, and it is with WH Auden’s poem Refugee Blues from Collected Shorter Poems 1927‐1957 that I address the plight of the men women and children stuck in a land that has somehow proved that it cannot love them back or at least offer a sense of repose for them considering their often sad stories of struggle-ridden travels from their homelands to a land that presented itself as the hope of Africa when Nelson Mandela assumed his term as the first democratically elected president in 1994.

Like anyone else, I had thought South Africa would prove to be the lighthouse’s beacon for those escaping poverty and political persecution in their countries. The recent years have however shown South Africa to be a host with xenophobic tendencies and now the women, men, and children gathered in protest close to the Methodist Church in Greenmarket Square just beg for the chance and the opportunity to leave a country they had at first thought to be some kind of Zion.
A talk with some of them reveals a people tired with the daily struggles they face at the hands of the local population and the authorities.

It takes long (very long) to access the papers needed to render the life of the asylum seeker well enough to at least have some semblance of a livelihood. There is thinly veiled aggression on the part of the locals who do not hesitate to loot the shops and business establishments of fellow Africans at the slightest provocation.

Many of the women and men I spoke to actually tell stories of having to start from scratch with every wave of xenophobic attacks. Many tell of being ostracised just on the basis of their being foreign; that they provide jobs to the locals or that they contribute to the economy is never considered.
It does not take much to understand that no one would stand being hated for being foreign. It takes simple commonsense to feel the pain that the refugee feels when the shop they built with the sweat of their toil is reduced to rubble by looting locals that chant songs of hate as they go from one African foreigner shop to the next, burning and looting only those shops of the African emigrants and never those of the local South

African or the Chinese or the white in the same neighbourhood.
Only the African émigré’s shop is burnt, reducing the often hardworking African brothers and sisters to emotional wrecks that lose hope with each passing wave of attacks. It made me feel guilty that I would sleep in the comfy sheets of a bed in an upmarket hotel while my fellow African kin rested their exhausted bones on the cold cobblestone of the square in front of the church. I honestly pinch myself each time I have to go

for a smoke at the entrance to the hotel.
I wonder whether the plight of the African refugee or asylum seeker is not similar to that of the European Jew Wystan Hugh (WH) Auden speaks of in this poem I read over 20 years ago.
Looking at the tired faces of the women and the men and the children, the hotel begins to feel uncomfortable as those lines in this poem begin to unravel their meaning in a South African context the refugees I see live in on a daily basis:
Say this city has ten million souls,
Some are living in mansions, some are living in holes:
Yet there’s no place for us, my dear, yet there’s no place for us.
Once we had a country and we thought it fair,
Look in the atlas and you’ll find it there: We cannot go there now, my dear, we cannot go there now.
In the village churchyard there grows an old yew,
Every spring it blossoms anew;
Old passports can’t do that, my dear, old passports can’t do that.
The consul banged the table and said:
“If you’ve got no passport you’re officially dead”;
But we are still alive, my dear, but we are still alive.
Went to a committee; they offered me a chair;
Asked me politely to return next year:
But where shall we go today, my dear, but where shall we go today?
Came to a public meeting; the speaker got up and said:
“If we let them in, they will steal our daily bread”;
He was talking of you and me, my dear, he was talking of you and me.
Thought I heard the thunder rumbling in the sky;
It was Hitler over Europe, saying: “They must die”;
We were in his mind, my dear, we were in his mind.
Saw a poodle in a jacket fastened with a pin,
Saw a door opened and a cat let in:
But they weren’t German Jews, my dear, but they weren’t German Jews.
Went down to the harbour and stood upon the quay,
Saw the fish swimming as if they were free:
Only ten feet away, my dear, only ten feet away.
Walked through a wood, saw the birds in the trees;
They had no politicians and sang at their ease:
They weren’t the human race, my dear, they weren’t the human race.
Dreamed I saw a building with a thousand floors,
A thousand windows and a thousand doors;
Not one of them was ours, my dear, not one of them was ours.
Stood on a great plain in the falling snow;
Ten thousand soldiers marched to and fro:
Looking for you and me, my dear, looking for you and me.
It could be that we are callous as Africans; it could be that we are so poor that we have become savages, but I think we need to be frank enough to address the problem I discussed as being born of self-hate rather than circumstance.

We Basotho have taken to hating each other on the basis of political affiliation and interest. We Africans have begun to persecute each other on the basis of nationality. It does not make sense why we have such organisations as the African Union, the Commonwealth League of Nations, or the United Nations if children will be forced to feel the brunt of the cold weather and hunger just because their parents are hated in the land where they came to seek asylum.

It is the children that count far more than anyone and the focus shall be on some of the conventions and statutes set by the of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)
The document sets out with a declaration, and I have chosen to take the contents of the document as they are (in bold):
“The Contracting States shall accord to refugees the same treatment as is accorded to nationals with respect to elementary education“.

It is widely acknowledged that refugee children require special care and assistance because of their vulnerability, their dependence on adults, and their developmental needs. The 1951 Convention does not specifically refer to children, who are protected by its provisions in the same manner as adults. However, some of the rights guaranteed in the 1951 Convention are particularly important to children, such as the right to public elementary education.

  • In addition, the degree of respect for other rights in the 1951 Convention, inter alia, housing, public relief, and social security may for humanitarian reasons have a stronger impact on children than upon others in the refugee community.
  • In recent years, the Office has undertaken a number of initiatives designed to assist staff in protecting the rights of refugee children, including: Some of the rights which are of particular importance to children of concern to the Office are:
  •  The right to be protected from discrimination (Article 2);
  • The right to have his or her best interests taken into account in all actions which concern him or her (Article 3);
  • The right to survival and development (Article 6);
  • The right to have his or her birth registered, along with the right to acquire a nationality
    (Article 7);
  • The rights of children and their parents to leave any country and to enter their own for purposes of family reunification (Article 10);
  •  The right to participate in judicial and administrative proceedings affecting the child; (Article 12);
  • The right to special protection and assistance for children who are seeking refugee status or who are considered refugees (Article 22, see below); and

The right to protection and care for children who are affected by armed conflict (Article 38).
Second, the Convention on the Rights of the Child has a specific provision dealing with children who are refugees or asylum-seekers.
Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 22:

1. States Parties shall take appropriate measures to ensure that a child who is seeking refugee status or who is considered a refugee in accordance with applicable international or domestic law and procedures shall, whether unaccompanied or accompanied by his or her parents or by any other person, receive appropriate protection and humanitarian assistance in the enjoyment of applicable rights set forth in the present Convention and in other international human rights or humanitarian instruments to which the said states are Parties.
2. For this purpose, States Parties shall provide, as they consider appropriate, co-operation in any efforts by the United Nations and other competent intergovernmental organizations or non-governmental organizations co-operating with the United Nations to protect and assist such a child and to trace the parents or other members of the family of any refugee child in order to obtain information necessary for reunification with his or her family. In cases where no parents or other members of the family can be found, the child shall be accorded the same protection as any other child permanently or temporarily deprived of his or her family environment for any reason, as set forth in the present Convention”..

It has always been the case that the law is applied when states feel it is convenient for them to do so.
It is a political disease that not only polarises the local population, but it is a malady that at the moment in time conveniently ignores the rights of the people I see in front of me in the square. There are no visible ablution facilities on the square, and the women (mothers) cook in the open air on gas stoves.

I wonder where those Good Samaritans are with their mobile soup kitchens and blankets and other handouts. It is only the milling crowd of sleeping and talking refugees, and nobody seems to mind them.
The scent in the air is one of sweat and it is not a surprise: where will they get the bathroom and ablution facilities in this square bordered by a church, a hotel, an upmarket gym, a municipal office, a gold-coin buyer and tobacconist? Like the German Jew in a W. H. Auden poem, it seems that the city and its people have plugged their ears and hardened their hearts to the plight of similar human beings with the same basic rights.

The African refugee would on a John Lennon tip be dubbed as the nigger of the world, the most ignored being in a world full of beings similar in all ways. The only difference for the men and women with no country is that they have become the forgotten of the world.
In times of Apartheid, they welcomed everyone on the run from the authorities into their homes regardless of country of origin. I believe they should be afforded the same courtesy this time around. That is if we are African.

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