The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, has concluded on Tuesday a two-day visit to South Africa and met with President Cyril Ramaphosa, Home Affairs Minister Pakishe Aaron Motsoaledi, and other senior Government representatives, with whom he discussed the situation of refugees and asylum-seekers in the country.
Grandi commended South Africa's commitment to protecting people fleeing countries affected by conflict, violence and persecution.
He noted that many South Africans had themselves experienced exile in the past, and the return of South African refugees from abroad was part of the country's journey from apartheid to democracy.
“South Africa's progressive laws and policies have provided a safe haven to many vulnerable people in need of protection and support," Grandi said, noting that UNHCR was ready to support SA government efforts to reinforce and streamline the asylum system, and to improve access to documentation for refugees and asylum-seekers.
During his visit, the High Commissioner held a range of discussions with refugees and asylum seekers in Johannesburg and Pretoria, and had a videoconference with some in Cape Town.
They shared fears relating to personal security, and concerns regarding the length of the asylum process, and growing problems in accessing and renewing documentation - that in turn impact their access to health services, education and jobs. He conveyed UNHCR's commitment to working with the authorities to help address these concerns and find suitable solutions.
“We appreciate South Africa's challenges of hosting refugees at a time of economic uncertainty and social tensions,” explained Grandi.
“We will continue to support the government in its efforts to build social cohesion, and appreciate the President’s call for tolerance and dialogue,” he added.
Grandi noted that resettlement to third countries is a very limited option for refugees worldwide, as the number of resettlement places available globally is unfortunately dropping.
For most refugees here in South Africa, resettlement is not an option. He also said that refugees opting for voluntary repatriation should be helped to return to their countries of origin.
UNHCR recognizes that, like many other countries, South Africa is confronted with the challenge of addressing increasingly complex population flows.
Asylum systems have come under immense strain as conflict and persecution drive more refugees across borders, while migrants resort to asylum channels in the absence of other safe, regular migration options.
"This is a global challenge," said Grandi. "Preserving fair and efficient asylum systems is vital. But to function effectively, they must be accompanied by safe, regular migration channels and other stay arrangements”. Grandi noted South Africa’s leadership role across the continent and beyond, and the importance of its advocacy in addressing the root causes of refugee flows.
The UN Refugee Chief also met with civil society organisations and business leaders to explore how they can help support the vulnerable, and create opportunities for refugees and asylum seekers in the country and across the region, as well as for the local communities hosting them. South Africa is hosting 268,000 refugees and asylum seekers according to government statistics, mainly from Somalia, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.