‘Ubuntu has no borders’: Celebrating World Refugee Day in Soweto

According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), an estimated 107,000 asylum claims were lodged in South Africa in 2011, making it the world’s largest recipient of asylum seekers, followed by the United States of America at 76,000 and France at 52,100. In the global village that we live in today, many factors have led human beings to a growing sense of discontent and divisiveness instead of peace and unity among nations. As such, displaced persons, including refugees and asylum seekers, often find themselves in difficult situations when they have to flee their home countries to seek protection in other countries that may be only moderately safer for them.

We are all equal, we are all different

South Africa, together with other countries across the world, has marked 20 June as World Refugee Day, on which to celebrate and appreciate the lives of all displaced persons who are scattered across the world. For South Africa, World Refugee Day serves to promote an understanding among communities of the reasons why people seek sanctuary. This year’s celebrations in Johannesburg ran with the theme, “We are all different, We are all equal, Ubuntu has no borders”.

The event, held in Orlando Community Hall in Soweto, saw a throng of more than 400 people, both local and foreign, arrive from as far as Pretoria. Various non-government organizations dealing with refugee issues such as Sonke Gender Justice also attended to mark this special day.

The Guest of Honour speaking at the event, Deputy Minister of Home Affairs Ms Fatima Chohen, asked us to pause to consider the plight of refugees the world over, adding that the day is a time for humanity to reflect and pledge itself to forging new paths towards harmony. “We should be inspired by the courage and determination of those who are forced to start anew in a foreign land due to persecution in their own countries. Like our hero Oliver Tambo and many others did in the years spent in exile during the long fight against Apartheid.”

2011: A year of crises

Of particular interest was this year’s UNHCR report on global trends for 2011, entitled A Year of Crises, which confirms what the world saw and continues to see every day on television screens and the internet – more people becoming refugees than at any time since 2000. Chohen cited the report: “By the end of 2011, some 42.5 million people world-wide were considered as forcibly displaced due to conflict and persecution. 2011 was marked by a succession of major refugee crises. Conflict in Cote d’Ivoire, Libya, Somalia and Sudan alone forced more than 800,000 refugees into neighbouring countries, the highest number in a decade.”

The Deputy Minister further encouraged the South African community to take time to reflect on the progress that has been made and the challenges that still face the nation in order to realize the commitment to protecting those who are forced to flee from their countries of origin for fear of persecution. “In South Africa, refugees – as well as asylum seekers awaiting the determination of their status – are able to move freely. Both categories of people are able to work and enjoy rights to basic services. Those granted refugee status have access to all the rights that enable them to integrate into South African society in terms of employment and services. Asylum seekers can apply to work and study while awaiting the outcome of their application to be finalized,” she said.

African music, poetry, dance: bringing people together

The event saw a performance by Lungile Mahloaole from Princess High School, Florida, who recited a poem echoing this year’s theme. Among other performances were that of the Grammy Award-Winning Soweto Gospel Choir members who performed together with different traditional groups from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Burundi and Zimbabwe. All the performances incorporated messages of respect and tolerance for foreign nationals and displayed various African dances, tradition, customs, morals and lifestyles.

Sefu, a Congolese man with a physical disability, told a brief story of his journey to South Africa and described the many challenges and ill treatment that disabled asylum seekers receive at Home Affairs. Sefu said that while the experience of war is still vivid in his mind, he looks forward to positive responses from society and the Department of Home Affairs about ensuring equal opportunities.

Celebrated since 2001, World Refugee Day emphasises unity. We must keep strengthening this unity as the only channel of fuelling sustainable peace and development, and upholding this unity against all forms of violence. At the heart of the day’s activities were messages from celebrity supporters and goodwill ambassadors who play a crucial role in helping the public to understand refugees’ situation and the tough choices they face.