Foreign nationals across the world often find themselves struggling to integrate with their new communities for a variety of reasons, chief among them social and cultural differences as well as being viewed as a threat by their new communities. The Weekly’s Martin Makoni spoke to the Free State Centre for Human Rights Coordinator for Advocacy Annelie de Man about some of the challenges faced by foreigners, particularly international students and how they can best be addressed. Makoni also asked De Man why locals in most countries always choose to vent their anger on foreigners when they feel government is failing to provide basic services such as health, sanitation and roads, among others. Excerpts:
You addressed University of the Free State students on the topic, #BurnthePhobia: Everyone is a foreigner somewhere, what prompted the topic?
The university hosts a lot of international students and we want to make sure that when the students are here, they have a safe space on and off campus. On campus, the students don’t necessarily experience violent xenophobic attacks as we have seen in the rest of South Africa. Such attacks are very unfortunate. So, we want to make sure we have safe spaces for our students. And as a university, we also have a responsibility to make sure that the students we have here, we grow them as human beings so that when eventually send them out in the world, they are fulfilled and well-rounded students.
What do you want to achieve from such discussions and how important are they to the university and South Africa at large?
We want them to know about all the issues faced by South Africa and the world at large that they get to discuss the different perceptions around xenophobia. We also want those that are being discriminated against, to have a chance to speak out and address the perceptions that are out there. We want them to speak about the bad things that are happening and how they can be challenged. From such discussions, we can also bring out the good things about embracing diversity, and what people from other countries can contribute to South Africa. We believe taking that knowledge can help us combat the perceptions, the fears and the discrimination.
Xenophobia is certainly an infringement on one’s human rights, how important is it for people to understand this when they interact with foreigners?
It is very important because if you look at the cornerstone to the fundamentals of human rights is respectful inherent human dignity. That is the starting point and it is very important, no matter where you come from. We must always remember that we are all human beings and that we all have the same rights.
How would you define xenophobia?
Xenophobia is essentially fear of anything that is foreign or strange to you.
What motivates that fear and the perceptions attached to it?
There is a general belief that there is criminality that comes with people from outside, that they steal jobs, that they “steal” our partners, and so forth. There is also a fight over resources, over and above economic opportunities… whether that is physical or natural resources.
How objective are such fears and how can society important is it for society to look at the situation differently?
These are mostly perceptions but we must not forget, for example, the issue of human trafficking which is a huge problem. However, accommodating foreigners can also promote diversity because some of them come with knowledge that you may not have. It’s important to consider the value that you gain from interacting and embracing people from diverse societies. We should always be open minded and embrace those people because it’s only something that will fulfill your own humanity as a person. Studies have shown that people coming from other countries bring new skills to the labour market. It’s therefore important to see how we take those skills and teach them to our own people so that we can build our own society. Universities for example, bring people with knowledge from other fields that we are not aware of.
What role can government play in ensuring the safety of everyone in the country?
If you look at the Universal Declaration for Human Rights and if you look at the SA constitution, the state is the primary duty bearer in respect of human rights. So, they have the obligation to respect human rights, to protect human rights and also to fulfill human rights. The promotion of human rights is also fundamental. When you speak about the promotion of human rights, you must protect a culture of respect for human rights. That includes giving the individual the environment and the space in which they can respect human rights. So, when you talk about xenophobia, there is an obligation on the government to create an awareness of human rights for all and that it must respect and protect people within the country.
Why do you think locals attack foreign nationals when they are not happy about something and is it something that can be addressed by governments?
It’s mostly about resources. But if governments fulfill their basic human rights obligations towards their own citizens, the citizens wouldn’t feel so threatened when people come in from other countries. There won’t be any need to fight over economic resources. If people have everything they need to be fulfilled as human beings, that is, their basic human rights, people can be more embracing towards each other and can be able to share the resources and the opportunities available. People wouldn’t be so threatened. But with migration, there also comes criminal activity, so to start with, there is need for better border controls in order to tackle human trafficking, for example. Also, criminal elements should not be allowed into the country.
Would you say government doesn’t know about some of the issues you raised and the importance of addressing them or it is just failing to play its role to the full?
I think government knows but it’s just failing… because the SA Human Rights Commission has highlighted these on numerous occasions. But it’s a failure that is so interconnected with so many things because if you look at your economic, social, cultural rights, it’s a very difficult obligation for governments to fulfill and ensure that everyone has everything they need. We are talking about economic problems here, and does government have enough economic resources to assist all South Africans in meeting their basic human rights? The economic resources could certainly be better utilised. There is a co-relationship between corruption and the disappearance of money that could be used to improve people’s lives.
Is xenophobia a natural fear, or is it something that’s instilled or something that one is taught or told about and they grow up with it?
I think it’s definitely both… because if you are in a situation of need, or situation of poverty and someone comes in and they threaten the little resources that you have, or they threaten your safety and security, that is something that will come naturally. I think it is a natural human response to be fearful. But unfortunately, that fear does then translate into violence or hatred. However, we also listen to our parents and family in general and the struggles they have gone through in their interactions with foreigners and we grow up with it, hence the need for awareness.