During the opening address of the World Refugee Day conference, hosted in Seapoint, Cape Town on 20 June 2012, the regional representative of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees set the tone by stating that anyone may become a refugee. He asked the audience to reflect on what they would do if they were one day forced to leave their homes and seek asylum in another country. He concluded his welcoming address by calling on the government to strengthen its commitment to the 1951 and 1969 conventions on refugee rights, which reinforced the protections afforded by the Constitution for asylum seekers in South Africa.
The three hour event centred on refugees’ access to the labour market, beginning with a broad introduction to the situation of refugees in South Africa. The programme included speakers from a range of organizations, such as the Cape Chamber of Commerce, the Department of Home Affairs, and the Congress of South African Trade Unions.
Dr Justin Munyakazi, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, added his own personal perspective. He noted that all refugees have their own stories, but that these stories often overlap because of the common obstacles they face. He highlighted the major challenges facing refugees in South Africa. He described the hectic and stressful process of obtaining identity papers and work permits, and the complications that arise from the government’s failure to address these concerns.
Dr Munyakazi noted that many refugees are unable to open bank accounts without proper identification, and are unfairly dismissed from their places of employment when the government fails to renew their permits as it should. For Dr Munyakazi, refugees are the victims of discrimination throughout South Africa, where little is being done to protect their constitutional rights.
The remainder of the Conference was filled with informative speeches that addressed the issues of unemployment, the role of trade unions, and discussions of how civil society may improve the conditions for refugees living within the country’s borders. These included commentaries from Mr Michael Bagraim, Mr Mike Louw, Mr Hanief Tiseker, among others.
Of particular note, Mr Bagraim addressed the issue of retrenchment of refugees. He Noted that employers may be fined for employing workers without proper documentation, but may also be prosecuted for dismissing workers who fail to produce renewed work permits. This creates a situation where employers are discouraged from hiring refugees in fear of these consequences.
After the speeches concluded, the moderator permitted the audience to ask questions of the panel. Audience members took the opportunity to voice their concerns and introduce new topics for discussion.
The conference ended with an uplifting reminder that “Ubuntu has no boundaries.” The moderator implored audience members to consider that though we are all different, we are also all equal, and thus deserving of the same rights.