On Tuesday, 10 December 2019, in commemoration of the United Nation’s Human Rights Day, the Jesuit Institute South Africa, in collaboration with the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), premiered their new 21-minute documentary entitled “In Another Prison? Migrants in Johannesburg.” The documentary highlights the trauma that female migrants and refugees suffer on their journey to Johannesburg as a result of gender-based violence; a chilling reminder at the close of the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence.

In the documentary, several migrants tell their stories. They are stories of fearing for their lives, and losing contact with family members, and struggling to survive in the inner city of Johannesburg, whilst facing rejection, discrimination and violence.

The documentary was filmed in the context of the recent xenophobic attacks in Johannesburg. It reveals how migration is not being well managed in the city, and how media and political officials pedal a false and inflaming narrative that scapegoats migrants and refugees.

In the documentary Diego Iturralde, the Chief Demographer at STATS SA, says that migration is not a problem to be solved but an opportunity that needs to be managed. He emphasised that the statistics on migrants and refugees are largely misunderstood and that in fact, the statistics include both documented and undocumented persons. There are currently less than 750,000 migrants in the City of Johannesburg, whilst South Africa as a whole has only 3.6 million persons who are foreign-born. This is far less than what some of the political rhetoric would have us believe, and at only 6.5% of the entire population, they cannot be held responsible for the problems facing the country at large.

In the documentary, the Archbishop of Johannesburg, and Chair of the Department for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Refugees of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference, Buti Tlhagale OMI, says the migrants and refugees come to the Church in South Africa bringing diversity that enriches the local African Church. He says that this gift is unfortunately marred by xenophobia.

The documentary, which was directed by Sr Katleho Khang SNJM of the Jesuit Institute, shows how migrants struggle materially and psychologically to make sense of their lives. With little support, many of them are living with the traumatic experiences of violence and rape. In the film, migrants explain how they are re-traumatised by ongoing discrimination and xenophobia.

Fr Tom Smolich SJ, international director of JRS, laments how across the world xenophobia is being used as a form of scapegoating. He says that this is exacerbated by weak leadership which has led to poor economic opportunities for many people. Smolich says that political leaders have realised that they can exploit the situation, for their own gain, by fuelling the flames of xenophobia.

Mr Jan Bornman, a journalist for New Frame who specialises in telling stories about migrants and refugees, agreed with this and challenged the media to interrogate stories that seek to scapegoat migrants and refugees and to work towards creating greater social cohesion.

Archbishop Tlhagale says that South Africans often use migrants as an excuse for the shortcomings of their own society, municipality and government. He says that the Church must offer them material and spiritual support and that he hopes that every Catholic parish would ensure they have a desk for migrants and refugees.

“You cannot not be moved by young people, strong, who could be making a contribution and yet are prisoners of their own situation, not of their own making, but of society,” Tlhagale says.

The premiere began with the Director of the Jesuit Institute, Russell Pollitt SJ, outlining the new Universal Apostolic Preferences of the Society of Jesus and highlighting how each of these preferences can be found within the Documentary.

The new Universal Apostolic Preferences for the Society of Jesus for 2019-2029 are:

  1. Show the way to God through the Spiritual Exercises and discernment.
  2. Walk with the poor, the outcasts of the world, those whose dignity has been violated, in a mission of reconciliation and justice
  3. Accompany young people in the creation of a hope-filled future
  4. Collaborate, with Gospel depth, for the protection and renewal of God’s Creation

Pollitt explained how walking with the poor is inherent to accompanying migrants, many of whom are young and are fleeing their homes because of conflict or climate-related disasters, and that these migrants and refugees turn to the Church, and to God, for help and protection.

After the premiere held at the Jesuit Institute’s premises and attended by about 90 people, there was a panel discussion between Dr Charles Sinkala (a former Member of Parliament and is a presidential candidate in the 2021 Zambian elections), Ms Sharon Ekambaram (head of the Refugee and Migrant Rights Programme at Lawyers for Human Rights) and Mr Jean Bwasa (a teacher at Sacred Heart College and a refugee featured in the documentary).

Dr Sinkala opened the panel discussion commenting on the intersection of migration and politics in Johannesburg by noting the role of large international agencies that are out of touch with the problems on the ground. He criticised the record of the United Nations in maintaining Human Rights, as well as NGOs in various African countries but appealed to all people of goodwill to use their God-given resources for the common good.

Ms Ekambaram from Lawyers for Human Rights spoke about the challenges faced by migrants and refugees in South Africa. Condemning the disrespect for their basic human rights, she argued persuasively to hold the government to account. She noted that there is currently a 96% rejection rate for asylum status in South Africa and that there is a clear prejudice within officials at the Department of Home Affairs who process documents for asylum status.

Ekambaram explained how South Africa has adhered to some international standards such as the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (OPCAT), but is failing to implement and apply these standards. She highlighted the problems of police brutality, citing the Independent Police Investigative Directorate’s 2017/18 report, of 217 cases of torture, 3,661 cases of assault and 112 rapes committed by police officers, including 35 committed while officers were on duty. She condemned the violence with which people in the Johannesburg CBD are ‘hunted down’ for their documents. She explained how the Climate Crisis contributes to the movement of peoples and affects the poor disproportionately. She called for the implementation of a SADC visa instead of focusing on walls and exclusion; criticized the corruption and mental abuse of officials in the Department of Home Affairs; and asked why xenophobic behaviour by officials remains unpunished in South Africa.

The final panellist, Mr Jean Bwasa, spoke about the hope of migrants and refugees desiring to rebuild Johannesburg. He admitted that he found this task daunting, given that 17 countries are currently engaged in conflict on the continent. He finds hope in three things: family, education, and languages. He explained how his family, especially his daughter who is 4 years old and stateless, gives him hope because of all they endure. He applauded Sacred Heart College for the work they do in offering free education in the afternoons specifically to refugee children. He said that the true hope of all people, not just refugees and migrants, is in a sound education. And he appealed for society to integrate and welcome migrants and refugees, and noted that this can best be done when they teach migrants and refugees local languages.

One of the questions asked was what practical actions can people take to welcome refugees and migrants. Panellists agreed that voting is not enough. One needs to become an active citizen and hold government accountable through responsible activism and solidarity.

Ms Ekambaram pointed out that access to justice for migrants and refugees is a crisis. She encouraged everyone to visibly find ways of saying they support migrants and refugees and that the xenophobic violence recently meted out in the Johannesburg CBD was not done in our name.

Mr Bwasa wondered when there are xenophobic attacks, where is the solidarity, such as was evident around the world with the Paris terror attacks: ‘Je Suis Paris’ etc.

Ms Ekambaram also highlighted the importance of educating migrants and refugees about their rights, especially flowing from OPCAT. She challenged the room to use the tactics of the women of Black Sash as a model to raise public awareness about the problem and prejudice of xenophobia. She also called for faith-based organisations to act together to help unite and organise civic society structures to stand up against xenophobia, similar to the role they played in opposing apartheid. She explained how she thought it was necessary to start thinking of the local government elections in 2022.

A religious sister commented that her perception is that South Africans are traumatised and that much of the behaviour we witness is due to the dysfunction in our society.

Everyone agreed that one practical thing that could be done was to spread the message of this video to everyone in their social networks so that this can move towards a rational discussion of managing the opportunities rather than mitigating a threat.

This article is archived here from my work for the online publication, Spotlight.Africa which I wrote whilst working for the Jesuit Institute South Africa. Spotlight.Africa was a work of the Society of Jesus in South Africa from 2017-2021.

This was originally published at: https://spotlight.africa/2019/12/13/in-another-prison-migrants-in-johannesburg/